Arizona Wildcats alum Ify Ibekwe inspiring new generation with D'Tigress

Nigeria went almost seven minutes without a bucket in the second quarter of their 81-72 loss to Team USA in the Olympic Games. It took Ify Ibekwe, slashing her way to the basket, to snap that streak and get them on the path to a fightback.

The basket was desperately needed, as the U.S. threatened to record a blowout. Inspired by those points, D'Tigress roared back and recorded a 12-0 run in the fourth quarter to cut what was a 20-point lead to eight.

Ibekwe, who finished with nine points on 20% shooting as Nigeria lost a game in which they were undone by that torrid second-quarter performance, is driven by the legacy of her immediate family and what she wants to leave behind for her adopted family -- her basketball family.

Ibekwe is the third member of her family, after brother Ekene and sister Chinyere, to play for Nigeria, and the second to feature at an Olympic Games, even though all three were born and raised in the United States.

The youngest Ibekwe is one of nine players in Nigeria's 12-person Olympic roster who were born in the U.S., and she insists there is a pride to representing the country where her parents were born.

"When we were growing up, my parents would always dress us in traditional clothing," Ibekwe told ESPN.

"We would go to Igbo church, we would go to the parties, and they would try to explain our culture the best way they could at that age but also understanding that we were born in America.

"So actually growing up and then being able to play for Nigeria, being able to practise in Nigeria, to go to Nigeria and experience our culture, that meant everything to us."

Even being shaped by that cultural education from her parents, Ibekwe says she took a while to "get it" -- and she had to see her sister play for Nigeria, both siblings urging her on, before the switch flipped.

"Being the baby, I didn't get it fast enough about how special our Igbo culture is, how special Nigerian culture is," Ibekwe said.

"It wasn't until my sister started to play that I saw that I literally do have another culture and I needed to know more about it.

"My brother is a two-time Olympian, and I thought that was so awesome but not really understanding.

"Because in my mind -- and I was young -- he was just going to play basketball, until I understood what it meant to play at the Olympics.

"I am honoured to be a part of the national team. It was passed down. My brother went and he said you need to go, and my sister also said you need to go."

And so Ibekwe went, carrying with her the legacy of being the only player in Arizona history to hit 1000-plus points and 1000-plus rebounds - and the only player to average a career double double (14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds) before being drafted No. 24 overall by the WNBA's Seattle Storm.

"I didn't think about records in Arizona, I was just playing basketball," Ibekwe said.

"You know Nigerian parents, they want you to get an education, get good grades.

"In order to be on the court I had to get good grades. At that point in my life, I was just having fun, not understanding that there was a profession, there was a national team. I wasn't thinking about the records.

"Until I got to my senior year, I didn't even understand all the accolades that I had accomplished because I was just playing basketball. To get my grades, to get my degree and all that under my belt."

Ibekwe has now been playing for Nigeria for three years, and she has taken part in the AfroBasket competition. These Olympic Games are her fourth FIBA tournament for Nigeria, but she could have playing earlier at the same time as her sister and brother.

She visited the Nigeria training camp in 2012 while they were in Florida, where her sister was with the team, but the younger Ibekwe said the time was not right.

"I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to to understand at the time. But now I've been with the team officially since 2019 and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

The trio are not the only Ibekwes to play basketball. Elder brother Onye also played and, although he is the only one who did not represent Nigeria, he had stints playing college hoops and in Europe.

What is it about this family and the fascination for basketball?.

"We are just big people," Ibekwe said.

"We grew up in Carson, California, and we were very active as kids. I remember my parents putting us in everything. We did piano, my sister and I we did dance, I did football, we did softball, and we all ran track and field. We were just very active and big children, and then we found basketball and that was it.

"After that, we all went to D1 schools, played overseas, and now playing for my country. So it is just a blessing that we were so active and so big."

A member of the 2019 team that won the AfroBasket title, Ibekwe is the second member of the family with silverware from their international adventures.

Sister Chinyere won bronze at the All Africa Games in 2013.

While there may not be any sibling rivalry at the dinner table, Ibekwe is determined to add an Olympic medal to that collection with this very promising D'Tigress team.

"Our goal is just to medal," she said.

"I feel like we are a different team than what you always saw before in the Olympics, and we believe we can do it. We are just trying to make history here. Everybody will be proud."

Her family already are proud seeing Ibekwe at the Olympics.

"The feeling is indescribable," big sister Chinyere told ESPN.

"We are all proud of Ify. This is a great lifetime opportunity and to watch her live out her dream, we are overflowed and thrilled with happiness.

"It is an honour for Ify to be competing at the Olympics."

A medal would be quite the accomplishment.

D'Tigress lost all five pool games in their sole previous Olympic appearance -- at the 2004 Games in Athens --and managed a lone classification win over the Republic of Korea to finish 11th of the 12 teams.

It is a measure of their progress that they have done much better at the World Cup since their debut in 2006, when they performed even worse than in their disastrous Olympic performance -- ending their campaign without a win to finish last out of 16 teams.

Another 12 years passed before Nigeria returned to the world stage, and they showed significant improvement to claim wins over Turkey and Argentina in pool play in 2018.

Those wins, alongside a loss to Australia, saw them qualify for the knockout phase, and they edged Greece by a point to progress to the quarterfinals.

Olympics medal tracker | Schedule

Eventual champions USA proved a bridge too far there, beating D'Tigress by 31 points, and Nigeria then lost the seventh-place playoff by a single point to Canada.

The team has come a long way since.

In the qualifiers for these Olympic Games, they went within inches of beating Team USA, leading the world champions by as many as 16 points and winning the first three quarters by one point, nine points and seven points, respectively, before losing their nerve in the fourth quarter to lose by five points.

Those results are part of the reason the players are so confident that they can win a medal and inspire a generation of young girls in Africa.

"If we win a medal, I think I am going to cry for like two weeks," Ibekwe told ESPN.

"And thank the Lord for this opportunity.

"Nigerians all over the world are proud of us so it would mean a lot to win a medal, to be an inspiration to younger girls in Africa, to be that role model they can see that they can do well. So that in whatever they are doing, they can just keep going, knowing that they can reach the highest level, and not just basketball."

Ekene, the first Olympian in the family, played for Nigeria at the 2012 and 2016 Games, and was also on the team to the 2006 FIBA World Cup; she is confident his baby sister can reach her goals.

"We are very proud of her living her dreams," he told ESPN. "And we want her to represent with pride, to stay focused and to work towards the goal."

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Chinyere has some advice for her baby sister.

"She should soak up the experience. Have fun. And remember to be strong. It takes a certain type of person to be a part of this organisation. You have to be mentally tough."

For Ibekwe, everything is possible so long as D'Tigress play consistently to their potential.

"We have to be our best to be consistent, play as a team and do the things that are right, in that order. Because when we play as a team, we do what we are supposed to do, we get after it, we bring that energy that everyone knows is our defence, our pressure, and our high intensity.

"If we can do that, then we will be much better than anyone expects."

And at the end of her career, Ibekwe's ultimate goal is to be a facilitator for future generations, as her siblings have been for her.

"I know that I have people above me and I will have people behind me that will look up to me to be their inspiration.

"You always want to leave something better than you found it. And I hope I can do that."