By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Sarah Imovbioh pondered the possibility for a moment before acknowledging, with a smile, that to play alongside a 6-5 or 6-6 center “would be amazing.”
Alas for Imovbioh, that won’t happen this season. At 6-2, she’ll be as tall as any player on the UVa women’s basketball team in 2014-15, just as she was in 2013-14.
Still, Imovbioh isn’t asking for sympathy, which is a good thing, because Virginia assistant coach La’Keshia Frett Meredith, who works with the team’s post players, is not inclined to show her any.
“None of that,” Frett Meredith said. “I think she can handle it and plus do more. She’s a very gifted player. She’s strong, athletic, definitely plays bigger than her size.
“Everything she encounters out there on the court, I think she can handle it. A lot of times I expect more than what she’s giving. She still has some room to grow as a player.”
Imovbioh (pronounced Ih-MOE-bee-OH), a native of Nigeria, is coming off a season in which she averaged 8.2 rebounds per game, sixth-most in the ACC. None of her teammates averaged more than 4.9 rebounds. Battling taller opponents around the basket, Imovbioh also finished second on the team in scoring (12.3 ppg).
“It’s really tough, but I take that as a challenge, because I know in my mind I’ll be going against bigger girls every single night,” she said. “I just try not to take a day off. I just gotta know: This is who we are, this is what we have, and we’re just going to make the best out of it.”
Preseason workouts have begun at John Paul Jones Arena for the Cavaliers. Virginia’s roster lists Imovbioh, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, as a senior, but that’s not entirely accurate. Yes, she’s in her fourth year as a student at the University. But Imovbioh did not make her debut on the court until 2012-13, her second year at UVa.
After graduating in 2011 from STAB, where she spent the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, Imovbioh took classes at UVa and worked out with her new teammates that summer. That September, however, the NCAA declared her ineligible to practice or compete with the Wahoos during the 2011-12 school year.
Imovbioh did well academically at STAB, but the NCAA ruled she had not completed her core-curriculum requirements within four consecutive years after beginning high school in Nigeria and so was ineligible in 2011-12.
The NCAA, however, also said she would get that year of eligibility back if she met certain academic standards at UVa, and Imovbioh, a sociology major who’s on track to graduate in May, has done so. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, that means she’s only halfway through her college basketball career.
“I think about that often,” Frett Meredith said. “It’s very exciting to think how much time she still has here at UVa to get better and just improve her game.”
Imovbioh, a Parade All-American as a STAB senior, was disappointed about having to sit out the 2011-12 season. But she said she’s better for the experience.
“Definitely,” said Imovbioh, who may enroll in UVa’s Curry School of Education in 2015-16. “Everything happens for a reason. I’m just happy that I was even able to sit out and also able to have a chance to get that fifth year back. I learned a lot not playing that first year. I feel like it shaped me into who I am today.”
She’s also happy to be able to learn from the 6-3 Frett Meredith, who joined head coach Joanne Boyle’s staff last summer. Frett Meredith, who had a legendary career at Phoebus High in Hampton, was a two-time All-America at Georgia.
“I’ve learned so many things from her,” Imovbioh said. “I love her. I love the way she coaches. She encourages me a lot. She pushes me every day in practice, and she reminds me that I cannot take a day off in practice. She always wants me in the gym. She’s always available. Like if I need someone to rebound when I’m shooting, she’s always like, `I’m just a call away or a text away,’ and she’ll be right there.”
Imovbioh, Frett Meredith said, is “a very hard worker, and when she comes to practice she’s very, very focused. She’s an intense player, and she really cares about her performance and every aspect of her game.”
In 2012-13, her first season with the `Hoos, Imovbioh averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. She shot 59 percent from the floor and 69 percent from the line.
In 2013-14, Imovbioh raised her scoring and rebounding averages and shot 55 percent from the floor. At the line, however, she dropped to 56 percent. Imovbioh, a force around the basket, attempted 168 free throws last season — 58 more than Ataira Franklin, who was second on the team — and her 74 misses cost the Cavaliers crucial points.
“The free-throw line, that’s just focus, that’s just repetition,” Frett Meredith said. “She has to own that and do a better job with that. It’s not like she has a bad shot or anything like that. Her form is good. It’s just a matter of putting the ball in the basket.”
Imovbioh is an instinctive rebounder capable of dominating the backboards, but she arrived at UVa with a limited offensive repertoire. Even last season, most of her field goals came on stickbacks and layups.
“Her faceup game is something we want to improve on, so she can hit that 15-footer,” Frett Meredith said. “So that’s been a main focus for her, just to expand her game so she is tougher to guard out there.”
Imovbioh wants to improve at the other end of the court, too. Boyle has switched to the Pack-Line defense, the trademark of UVa men’s coach Tony Bennett‘s team, and that’s been an adjustment for her players, especially the foul-prone Imovbioh.
“I’m just trying to play the best defense I can, because I gotta stay in the game,” said Imovbioh, who was called for a team-high 100 personals in 2013-14. “So I gotta watch my fouls. I gotta be smart. I just can’t make silly mistakes.”
Frett Meredith said: “Some of her fouls are not smart fouls. We talk about that, and it’s more a reach-in or frustration foul [than a smart foul]. So those are the ones that we can control and we need to eliminate.”
A knee injury limited Imovbioh’s participation in the Cavaliers’ summer workouts, but by the start of the fall semester she was close to 100 percent.
“As a coach when you have the opportunity to work with them, especially one-on-one, you hate to miss out on the opportunity,” Frett Meredith said this week. “But she did a good job. There were some things she couldn’t do, but she’s done a good job of getting in the gym on her own and with her teammates and making up for that lost time.”
Virginia, which finished 16-14 in 2012-13, dipped to 14-17 last season. In a program that once ranked among the nation’s elite, the desire to return to form is strong.
“The team as a whole, we’re motivated,” Imovbioh said. “We’re ready. We took last year’s result as a challenge, and we don’t want that to happen any more. We want to have a good year this year, and everyone is just excited and looking forward to what this year has to offer.”
The Cavaliers’ freshman class consists of guards Mikayla Venson and Aliyah Huland El and post players Lauren Moses and Jae’Lisa Allen. Moses and Allen are each 6-2. The `Hoos still aren’t as tall as most of their ACC counterparts, they have more size than they did in 2013-14.
“We’ve always struggled with boards, rebounding,” Imovbioh said, “so getting some more people in there, I feel like it’s just going to make the job easier for me for those rebounds, because then we have two post players down there who are boxing out.”
Imovbioh, known for her brilliant smile, flashed it often during a recent interview at JPJ. She’s enjoying life at UVa and was able to spend three weeks with her family in Nigeria after the 2013-14 school year ended.
That was not supposed to be Imovbioh’s only visit to Africa this summer. In August, however, UVa canceled the women’s team’s scheduled trip to Africa because of concerns about the Ebola virus outbreak in the western part of the continent.
The Cavaliers hope to reschedule the tour for 2015.
“It was disappointing,” Imovbioh said. “Everyone was looking forward to the trip. You could feel the energy, everyone on the team was ready to go. I was just excited that we were going, especially for my teammates who haven’t been to Africa.
“I was just waiting to see the facial expressions when they get out of the airplane, just to breathe a different air, and just to see everything, how life is, how different it is from the United States.”