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June 21, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Back in her native Nigeria, Felicia Aiyeotan has two brothers, one younger and one older. Asked if her brothers are tall, too, Aiyeotan laughed.

“No, they’re tiny!” she said.

In reality, her older brother stands around 6-4, which speaks to the vantage point from which Aiyeotan surveys the world. At 6-9, she’s one of the tallest players in women’s basketball, at any level.

Aiyeotan, already fluent in English, came to the United States before the ninth grade and, while living with a host family, spent three years at Neumann Goretti High in Philadelphia.

She finished high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey, where she was a boarding student in 2015-16, and then enrolled this month at the University of Virginia. One of four newcomers in head coach Joanne Boyle’s program — the others are 6-3 Lisa Jablonowski, 5-9 Dominique Toussaint and 6-0 Jocelyn Willoughby — Aiyeotan is an intriguing addition to a frontcourt that’s been one of the ACC’s smallest in recent years.

“You can’t teach size, and I think she’s come a really long way in the last four years playing in the States,” Boyle said. “Strength is going to be her thing. In this conference, can she hold off stronger players and play against physicality?”

Aiyeotan, whose maternal grandfather stood 7-1, was 6-5 by the time she was 12 years old. She reached her current height in the 10th grade. Growing up, she said, it was not easy being taller than the other girls in Lagos.

“I was trying to hide myself and trying to make myself seem unnoticed, because when I was home in Nigeria back then, I would get made fun of, because I was totally different,” Aiyeotan recalled. “I was really skinny, and it was just hard for me to fit. That’s why I shied away from sport at first. But coming into America and seeing how people really care about me and are so excited about who I am and my height, and not discouraging, I got comfortable with myself, and I feel free.”

On Virginia’s 2016-17 roster, Aiyeotan is one of five players listed at 6-3 or taller, along with Jablonowski (6-3), redshirt freshman Shakyna Payne (6-3), and sophomores Debra Ferguson (6-4) and Moné Jones (6-3). The Wahoos’ other post players include 6-2 juniors Jae’Lisa Allen and Lauren Moses, who led the team in rebounds (6.9 per game) in 2015-16.

“Not only do we have height,” assistant coach La’Keshia Frett Meredith said, “but their games are all so different in what they bring to the table.”

Boyle said: “I think we have a lot of versatility with our lineups, so that’s good.”

Frett Meredith, a former All-America center at Georgia, has coached UVA’s post players since joining Boyle’s staff in July 2013. At least she has some legitimate size with which to work.

“That’s an understatement,” Frett Meredith said, laughing.

Her plan with Aiyeotan?

“I want to challenge Felicia to kind of be outside her box, but at the same time understand her strengths in terms of being a rim protector and scoring around the basket,” Frett Meredith said.

“Just because she’s 6-8, 6-9, I don’t want to limit her and say, `Stay by the rim [all the time].’ But initially, we’ll play to her strengths until she gets more comfortable with the speed of the game and physicality of the game.”

Aiyeotan, who’s rooming this summer with Toussaint, was introduced to hoops when she was 12.

“But I never pursued basketball,” she said, “because it was totally different and I was shy, and in my environment sport wasn’t a big thing over there. So I tried to be on my own and not participate that much.”

At a basketball camp in Nigeria called Hope 4 Girls Africa, however, Aiyeotan met girls of similar stature, and that changed her life. Now, she said, basketball is “my favorite thing to do.”

She realizes, though, that her teammates have been around the game most of their lives, which can put her at a competitive disadvantage.

“I’m still learning basketball,” Aiyeotan said.

She waited until the spring to make her college decision, choosing Virginia over Boston College and Penn State in late March. It helped UVA that the school’s men’s basketball team included Mike Tobey and Marial Shayok, who preceded Aiyeotan at Blair Academy.

When they learned Aiyeotan was considering Virginia, coaches and teachers at Blair Academy spoke highly to her about Tobey and Shayok.

“Then when I came for my visit, I met them, so it felt like home,” she said. “The fact that they went to my school, we just had an instant connection.”

She felt a similar connection with the coaching staff at Virginia.

“I just had a really good feeling that I was surrounding myself with family,” Aiyeotan said. Also, “I saw the way Coach Frett worked with the post players, and I knew my strengths and weaknesses, and I deeply believe that working with her I’ll really, really get better.”

Aiyeotan also figures to benefit from working with Robb Hornett, who runs the strength and conditioning program for the Virginia women’s team.

“She moves pretty well for being 6-9,” Hornett said. “Girls with that size usually don’t move as well. I think she’s got a pretty solid base right now, but there’s a lot of room for growth in working with her.

“She does have some really soft hands, so she can catch well, and she does have some good post moves. It’s just putting on some strength so she can bang in the post.”

Aiyeotan wants to improve her skills, too “because when I get on the court, [opposing] coaches are like, `Box her out, push her around,’ because I’m skinny,” she said.

“I feel like if my skills are set, it wouldn’t matter. If you box me out and do all that stuff, I could still play on the court. But I know I need to get stronger, because every time I play, they always put the biggest kid, the strongest kid on me. So I want to get a little balance and understand my body and its movement, because I’m still trying to adjust to my tall self.”

Boyle said Aiyeotan’s defense, not surprisingly, is ahead of her offense.

“She’s a shot-blocker and she can rebound,” Boyle said. “She needs to work on her mobility, being able to get to the ball better. But we’re going to keep it simple. It’s going to be drop steps, it’s going to be a little hook shot, it’s going to be getting her balance and her strength so that she can position herself down low and just be a presence down there for us.”

Since her freshman year in high school, Aiyeotan has been able to dunk the ball in practice, but she’s still looking to break through in an official game.

“I [tried] in a game, but I missed it,” Aiyeotan said, smiling. “So I hope I get it in college.”

Her parents, back in Nigeria, are as interested in their daughter’s accomplishments in the classroom as her performance on the court.

Her father makes furniture. Her mother is a trader who “always tells us that whatever you do, just make sure you get your education right, because if you get your education right, it’s going to be with you forever,” said Aiyeotan, who’s taking one class during this session of summer school. “So they try to encourage me when it comes to schoolwork and everything that I need to be successful.”

She stays in touch with her family through texts, emails, phone calls and Skype sessions. Aiyeotan hasn’t been home to Nigeria since her freshman year in high school, and her relatives have not visited her in the U.S.

“It’s been tough,” Aiyeotan said, “but I’m surrounded with really good, nice and caring people, so I don’t feel homesick that much.”

As for her short time at UVA, it’s “been exciting and challenging,” Aiyeotan said. “I’m trying to get my routine right, but it’s been fun.”

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