By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Back home in Nigeria this summer, Felicia Aiyeotan saw her family for the first time in a year. Her parents and two brothers had no trouble recognizing her, but they were struck by how much she’d changed.
“Yeah, because I got bigger and stronger,” Aiyeotan said. “They think I got taller too, I guess because they haven’t seen me in a while, but I’m pretty much the same.”
At 6-9, Aiyeotan has more than enough height to excel on the basketball court. But her first season on the University of Virginia women’s team made clear to Aiyeotan that she needed more bulk if she was to win low-post battles.
“When I was in high school, I was like, `I can’t wait to go to college, where I’m just going to be guarded by one person,’ ” Aiyeotan said. “In high school, because I was taller, I was always guarded by two or three people. I was always pushed around, and I was like, `College is supposed to be five-on-five, so I shouldn’t expect [double- and triple-teaming]. It should just be one person on me.'”
“But I got to college and I was like, `Oh, no, Felicia, you’re wrong.’ Because the people I’m playing against, they’re faster, they’re stronger, they think really fast, and they correct their mistakes. In high school, people might guard you the same way the entire game. But here in college, if they’re front-guarding you and see it’s not working, they might guard you from the back. If they see it’s not working, they might put two people on you.
“After my first few games, I realized that I needed to get more strength and put more muscle on, and I’m still in that process right now.”
Working with Robb Hornett, UVA’s strength and conditioning coach for women’s basketball, Aiyeotan (pronounced EYE-oh-Ten) has added about 15 solid pounds, and opposing post players can no longer push her around so easily.
“She looks a lot better,” Hornett said.
“And she’s done really well in the classroom, and that’s given her confidence,” Virginia head coach Joanne Boyle said.
Aiyeotan, who did not start playing basketball until she was a teenager, came to the United States before her freshman year in high school. She spent three years at Neumann Goretti High in Philadelphia before transferring to Blair Academy in New Jersey for her senior year.
As a girl in Nigeria, she learned to speak English fluently, so she did not have to clear a language barrier in Charlottesville. Still, she’s happy to have her first year of college behind her.
“This summer, everything is much better compared to last summer,” Aiyeotan said, “because last summer I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know anything in general: locations, classes, everything. But this year I know what to expect. I know where I’m going. It’s less questions, less curiosity.”
Aiyeotan went home for three weeks early in the summer and delighted in catching up with her family. She didn’t play much basketball while she was in Nigeria, “but she came back ready to work,” Hornett said. “She had a good mentality.”
Not only is Aiyeotan significantly stronger as she heads into her second season, Hornett said, “I think she definitely has better stamina. Being in the program another year has definitely helped her. She’s confident, and when she lets it rip in running, she can fly, which is good.”
The Cavaliers open practice on Sept. 14. When the season begins in November, Hornett said, “I think the first non-conference games are going to be critical for [Aiyeotan] to get minutes and see that all the work she’s put in is paying dividends.”
In 2016-17, Aiyeotan came off the bench in every game for a UVA team that finished 20-13 after losing in the WNIT’s second round. She averaged 4.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 12.5 minutes per game and led the Wahoos with 54 blocked shots, nearly twice as many as her closest teammate, Lauren Moses (28). Aiyeotan’s average of 1.64 blocks per game ranked third among ACC players.
“Just looking back at last season and reflecting on the things that I’ve done and things I could do better,” she said, “I definitely think I could do much more than I did last year. I’m looking forward to that.”
Boyle expects Aiyeotan’s role to be considerably larger this season. In early August, the Cavaliers spent a week in Costa Rica, where they played three games, defeating the University of Ottowa twice and the Costa Rica national team once.
In the first game, against Ottowa, Aiyeotan totaled 10 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. In the final game, against Costa Rica, she made 8 of 11 shots from the floor, scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots in only 16 minutes.
A knee injury kept the 6-2 Moses from playing on the trip, and Aiyeotan started at center. She enjoyed a huge size advantage over UVA’s opponents.
“There was no one that could cover her,” Hornett said. “She still had some ball-control issues, but she did play well. Whatever she does, even if she doesn’t do anything offensively, she’s going to make an impact defensively.”
Boyle said: “It’s just hard to score over 6-9. It’s just a bonus to have that size on the floor.”
The trip highlighted the progress Aiyeotan has made working with Hornett and assistant coach La’Keshia Frett Meredith, who was an All-America post player at Phoebus High School in Hampton and at the University of Georgia.
“Fe’s getting her body in a better position,” Boyle said, and Aiyeotan’s improved balance, footwork and post moves were on display in Costa Rica.
“I thought she finished better,” Boyle said, “and demanded the ball more. It’s not, `Oh, gosh, Fe’s arrived,’ but she’s made some huge strides in those areas where last year we were saying, `Wait till she puts on 15 pounds of muscle. Wait till she gets better balance.’ Now some of these things are starting to come into play.”
“I loved it,” she said. “Some of the stuff was similar to [Nigeria], especially the market. I don’t know any Spanish, but I could easily relate to the environment with where I’m from. I loved the tours and where we went. We went to the orphanage, which was really huge for me, because I love helping people and seeing people from different backgrounds.”
In the coastal town of Herradura, virtually all of the players went zip-lining through the rain forest one day. Aiyeotan — all 6-9 of her — was among those who partook in the experience.
“I was scared, but I got through my fears,” she said, smiling.
Her willingness to take on challenges is one of Aiyeotan’s many attributes.
“She wants to be good,” Boyle said, “and when I walk in the gym at certain hours in the morning or certain times at night, she’s in there.
“She really works. She really finds her time to put in outside of the time we require of her, and she wants to do it. She wants to be a pro, she wants to be a dominant player in [the ACC]. She’s not just sitting on the couch eating bonbons. She’s in the gym working.
“I give her credit. She’s done an amazing job in the classroom, and that has not been easy. So she’s really kind of taken the entire UVA experience and used it to the best of her ability, to position herself for good things in the classroom, on the court, and later in life.”