Arizona's Leadership Is On the Line
By Brian Price
Ify Ibekwe, Arizona's star senior forward, is confident that there's still time for this U of A team to save their season.
The University of Arizona women's basketball team has had an uneven 2010-201, full of highs and lows.
These are the times that test a team. Coming down the homestretch of regular season play, the Wildcats now have to show what they're made of.
On the road, the team has struggled losing six of nine, most recently in a pair of losses against Cal and No. 10/11 UCLA.
"Given the nature of our past losses, these [our upcoming home] games will define us," Ibekwe admits. "We hadn't given our all against them [previously] and now we have a chance to compete and show the nation that we're a good team."
Head coach Niya Butts agrees. "Our effort in those games will say a lot about who we are. It's not about how hard you get hit and get knocked down, but how fast you get up," Butts says. "These upcoming games will determine our progress and our ability to play within our game and not be held up by mental barriers."
Until Thursday night, the Wildcats had hung their hats on a 9-0 undefeated home record. That was before the Cal Golden Bears came to Tucson and handed U of A their eighth loss in a hard-fought contest. The defeat is their eighth of the season and their sixth in conference play.
The loss put even more pressure on the Wildcats to step up at home, and get back to their winning ways as the season hangs in the balance. The Wildcats next face conference juggernaut and No. 3 Stanford on February 5, followed by ASU on February 13.
Regardless of what happens, Ibekwe draws faith from a constant source of inspiration.
"I'm very religious as a Catholic Christian. I believe God has blessed me with the ability to play at Arizona so I want my cross necklace, which my Mom gave to me, to always be close to me," she says. "Over my bed, in my car, in my locker; anywhere you look I have a cross near me."
In fact, Ibekwe lists her cross necklace as her most important possession.
"I'm a young female college student and athlete and all kinds of things happen, not all of it makes sense, so when there is something I don't understand I trust that God will see me through it," she says. "Everything will be okay at the end."
Regardless of how this season ends up, and despite the disappointments along the way, the native Californian has already made her mark on the Arizona record books. She is poised to end her four-year career having averaged a double-double for the Wildcats. Ibekwe has also scored in all but one game during her collegiate career. As a freshman, she started over half the games and from her sophomore year through this season she has started 72 of 77.
Playing for Coach Butts has been a major factor. "My overall knowledge of the game has improved playing for Coach Butts," says Ibekwe. "Being patient, knowing when to shoot and seeing the court. Ball handling, shooting, post-moves, facing up [to the basket] have all improved."
Ibekwe's 9.4 rebounds per game make her the top rebounder in the Pac-10 this season, and her 13.9 points per game are second on the Wildcats behind Davellyn Whyte's 15.2.
Her play has always been consistent and strong, but one aspect of her game that needed a change was her ability to lead, not just by example, but by guiding her other teammates with verbal encouragement.
"Off the court I have never been shy at all," says Ibekwe. "I'm very social, whereas on the court it's the opposite. I was very focused on the game and the task at hand. I just played basketball. I had never been a vocal player even though I'm a vocal person. It's weird."
Weird didn't cut it with Butts.
"Ify is smart enough to understand that in order to be a good basketball player it's going to take a lot more than filling the stats," Butts says. "She knows what this team needs from her. Watching film also helps that. When she sees a teammate getting hit on screens that weren't called out, she realizes there are things that can be avoided by simply talking. It's the little things that make a huge difference."
The difference now? Ibekwe, always one of the top players in the Conference, is now one of the top-talkers on the team.
"I have to utilize my ability to communicate with my teammates. They need me to be a vocal leader and wherever we are, practice or a game, or whatever is going on, good or bad, they need me to be a vocal leader and offer encouragement."
The dialogue will have to produce more consistent play.
Arizona is the third highest scoring team in the Pac-10, 35th overall in the nation, averaging 73.2 points per game. However, the Wildcats are slipping in the standings, now sixth in the Pac-10 following their loss to Cal.
Although this will be Ibekwe's last season as a Wildcat, she knows she is leaving the program in the most capable of hands.
"[Coach Butts] just wants the best for all of her players. She lets us all know that we're Wildcats for a reason," Ibekwe says. "We fit into the program."
With eight games left in the regular season, Ibekwe, Butts and the rest of the Wildcats are eager to continue building right down to the final buzzer of the season.
Ibekwe's faith, skill and voice will be put to the test.