Improved Nneka Ezeigbo, Robert Morris welcome challenge in NCAA Tournament
Two years ago, Nneka Ezeigbo was a jittery freshman playing in her first NCAA Tournament. Facing perennial power Notre Dame in front of a large, pro-Fighting Irish crowd in South Bend, Ind., was, to say the least, eye-opening for the New Jersey native.
Ezeigbo played 15 minutes and missed all four of her field-goal attempts, a pair of free throws accounting for her only points.
On Friday, Ezeigbo and the Colonials (22-10) return to the tournament after a one-season absence. RMU faces fifth-ranked Louisville (29-3), the top seed in the Albany Regional, at the Cardinals’ home court.
The task at hand is similarly daunting to 2017, but Ezeigbo is a different player. She enters this NCAA Tournament as a Northeast Conference first-teamer, the conference defensive player of the year and on the heels of earning MVP honors in the NEC Tournament.
She posted personal-best numbers across the board during the regular season: 12.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 53 steals, 43 blocks in 24.6 minutes per game. Practice and experience, of course, helped, but Ezeigbo said her most important development was in her demeanor.
“I feel like I have grown to the point where I can control my temper and give a second thought to what I have to do to try to fix mistakes,” she said. “I was emotional, and it would affect the way I played sometimes.
“I just have to remember not to get into my head and not let it affect the next play.”
In terms of her physical game, some of those upgrades can be traced to a mutually beneficial working relationship with sophomore center Ire Ozzy-Momodu. Both listed at 6-foot-2 and with similar skill sets, they battle regularly in practice, and the results have been evident.
Ozzy-Momodu went from averaging 0.9 points and 1.4 rebounds as a freshman to 6.6 in both categories this season. She recorded three double-doubles.
“Sometimes you are a little nervous to go at someone who is your friend,” coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “But we broke that down right away. We told them (they) have to be able to go after each other and foul each other and make each other better.”
Said Ezeigbo: “We are really close on and off the court. I tell her what she’s doing wrong, and she tells me what to fix. Even though I’m older than her … I very much appreciate that. And when we have free time, we just hang out together.”
There is another significant change from Ezeigbo’s first NCAA experience: On a team with only two seniors and one other junior, she has become a leader. Buscaglia said he has been impressed with the way she took ownership of that responsibility.
“She’s growing into a leader, and that’s amazing for what she thought she was capable of when she walked in the door (at RMU),” he said. “Now she is realizing she can hold others accountable and lead by example.”
Ezeigbo said she is not a naturally vocal person but recognizes the need to become more comfortable in that role. She must be the one to talk the underclassmen through situations that are new to them but she has been through.
Like playing in the NCAA Tournament.
No doubt some of the Colonials’ freshmen and sophomores will be awed by their debut on the NCAA stage, but Ezeigbo will do her best to help to calm their nerves. She, after all, knows what that’s like.
“Basically, don’t get overwhelmed by who we’re playing or the atmosphere,” she said. “Don’t get shaken up by stuff like that. Pay attention to the game, and pay attention to what your roles are.
“If we win, that’s great. If we lose, we’re going to go down fighting. If our team gives 100 percent and hustles all the way to the end for the full 40 minutes, I will be completely satisfied.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .