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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — She won’t become a full-fledged member of the UVa women’s basketball team until the end of this academic year, but that’s OK with Sarah Imovbioh.

She’s waited this long. What are a couple of months more?

“I think I am so blessed,” Imovbioh, a native of Nigeria, said with her trademark smile at John Paul Jones Arena. “I’m just lucky. It could have been bad. It could have been worse.”

A 2011 graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, Imovbioh took classes at UVa and worked out with her new teammates last summer. In early September, however, the NCAA ruled that Imovbioh was ineligible to practice or compete with the Cavaliers during the 2011-12 school year.

“When she heard the news she was devastated,” Virginia coach Joanne Boyle said.

Imovbioh (pronounced Im-mōv-bee-oh) did well academically at STAB, where she spent the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, but the NCAA ruled that she had not completed her core-curriculum requirements within four consecutive years after beginning high school in Nigeria.

“I was shocked,” Imovbioh said, “because I was here for summer school and I was able to play with the girls, so I thought I was good to go. It was depressing. It was something I didn’t expect.”

As Imovbioh noted, the situation could have been worse. She is enrolled at the University and will have four seasons of eligibility, starting in 2012-13, provided she meets UVa and NCAA academic requirements as a freshman. That’s not expected to be a problem for Imovbioh, a 6-2 forward who was a Parade All-American as a STAB senior.

“Overall, in some ways it could really benefit her,” Boyle said. “We still get her for four years, and Sarah’s so diligent and so committed, she worked out every day. She looks like a college senior.”

Also sitting out during the 2011-12 season at UVa was 6-2 forward Sarah Beth Barnette, a transfer from the University of Kentucky. Barnette, however, was able to practice with the team. Imovbioh trained by herself, under the supervision of strength-and-conditioning coach Katie Fowler.

“I think much credit goes to Katie, because she made life so much easier for me,” Imovbioh said. “She was really important to me. She was the one getting me stronger and encouraging me to keep on moving and pushing, because doing it alone, it’s not that easy. But she’s always there for me.”

Imovbioh was not allowed to travel with the team to road games. But she attended every game at JPJ, sitting near the UVa bench.

“It’s been great,” said Imovbioh, who occasionally traveled on her own to away games. “I was able to embrace that. But it was tough. Some games I just wanted to get in and play.”

Her attendance at practice was not mandatory, but every time the Wahoos took the court at JPJ, Imovbioh was there, “just to watch the team and learn the plays,” she said.

“I just love being around the girls. They have really embraced me. I do everything with them. We are always together. The only thing I can’t do is just to practice with them or do anything organized.”

Boyle said: “She’s handled it great. It’s just who she is as a player. She wants to be part of the team. She doesn’t want to be isolated. She didn’t want to get lost without knowing the system. She’s a very selfless person.”

Imovbioh’s coach at STAB was former VCU great Phil Stinnie, who became her guardian after she moved here from Nigeria. Under Stinnie’s tutelage, Imovbioh blossomed into one of the more dominant high school players in Central Virginia history.

As a junior, she averaged 32.2 points, 20 rebounds, 4.9 blocked shots and 4.3 steals. Her averages as a senior also were spectacular: 29 points, 22.6 boards, 4.7 blocks and 3.6 steals.

“Sarah’s work ethic is second to none, and she deserves this honor,” Stinnie told The Daily Progress after Imovbioh was named a Parade All-American last spring. “She has blossomed into an extraordinary player over the past three years, and she hasn’t reached her peak.”

When Imovbioh signed her letter of intent with UVa in November 2010, she did so expecting her college coach to be Debbie Ryan. But Ryan stepped down after the 2010-11 season, and Boyle was hired to succeed her.

“I was really looking forward to playing for Coach Ryan,” Imovbioh said. “I really loved her. I loved her coaching style. But it just happened that she had to leave, and it just also happened that I fell in love with Coach B’s system of coaching. She’s great. She’s amazing. Just like they say, everything happens for a reason.”

Imovbioh played pickup games with her UVa teammates last summer, and she’ll be able to take part in voluntary workouts with them this summer. Not until late August, though, will Boyle actually get to work with Imovbioh on the court for the first time. So it’s too early for Boyle to say what impact Imovbioh might have as a freshman power forward in 2012-13.

“I don’t know anything about Sarah other than what the kids tell me,” Boyle said. “That is, she can run the floor with the best of them, she’s a ridiculous rebounder, and she’s very, very competitive. And Phil Stinnie has always told me you’re never going to find a harder worker.”

Boyle has seen evidence of that. Imovbioh and Barnette “became best friends,” Boyle said, “and every time we’d come back from a trip, we’d walk in the gym and they’d be working out.”

From a team that finished 25-11 after losing in the WNIT quarterfinals, UVa will have to replace two seniors: 6-2 forward Chelsea Shine and 5-7 point guard Ariana Moorer.

Imovbioh and Barnette won’t be Boyle’s only new options next season. Three players signed letters of intent with Virginia in November: guards Raeshaun Gaffney, Jaryn Garner and Faith Randolph. Also, point guard China Crosby, who missed most of this season with a knee injury, will be back in 2012-13.

For Imovbioh, the season seemed to drag at times, “probably because I was so anxious to play,” she said. In her solitary workouts, she has polished her ballhandling and shooting skills. Her time, she knows, is almost here.

“Oh, yeah, it is coming,” Imovbioh said. “I am so excited, and I can’t wait to get on the floor.”

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