As Ugo Nwaigwe entered the Wagner women’s basketball film room following the team’s loss to St. John’s Unversity—its fifth-straight loss to open the 2014-15 season—leaving the program was the last thing on her mind.
But as the year wore on, she lost faith in her coach, Lisa Cermignano, and she thought it was time.
“It didn’t make sense to me anymore, playing for her,” Nwaigwe said. “I just didn’t believe in her.”
Nwaigwe, then a senior, was coming off a year in which she was named the Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Year and finished fourth among Division I players, with 3.8 blocked shots per game during the 2013-14 season.
With the Law School Admission Test looming in the spring semester, the 6-foot-3-inch graduate senior center felt she could leave the program, be at peace leaving basketball and prepare for the exam.
It wasn’t that easy.
“When I quit, I lost my love for the game,” Nwaigwe said. “I didn’t want to play anymore, and I couldn’t watch college basketball without getting emotional.”
After leaving the program, Nwaigwe traveled to Nigeria with her parents for the holiday season. With the basketball season carrying into winter break, Nwaigwe never had the chance to see her extended family.
During her visit, she received phone calls and emails from several programs, offering her a fresh start.
“I didn’t realize how unhappy something I loved was making me,” Nwaigwe said. “Some kids don’t even go to school or have a basketball and are still smiling and it made me so upset. When I came back from Nigeria, I wanted to play again.”
Nwaigwe arrived in her Valley Stream, New York home and called Temple assistant coach Willnett Crockett, expressing her interest in the program.
“Temple was the only school on the list that I ever contacted,” Nwaigwe said. “My old [American Athletic Union] coach [Rich Slater] was in contact with the staff, so he was helping me.”
When she visited Temple last spring, she felt a different culture among her teammates and coaches. After visiting, sophomore guard Donnaizha Fountain convinced Nwaigwe to be a part of coach Tonya Cardoza’s team.
“I’m not used to having a relationship with a coach, which is really sad,” Nwaigwe said. “I came here and saw coach Cardoza hugging her players and joking around. It’s a real basketball family.”
But before the start of the Owls’ regular season opener against the University of Florida Nov. 13, 2015, Nwaigwe was still nervous on the court.
Nwaigwe said she lost some confidence after suffering an achilles injury during the 2012-13 season, but quitting the team at Wagner was even worse.
“Every time I had the ball and would go in for a layup, in my mind, I already missed it,” Nwaigwe said. “I lost my timing for blocking shots. I was missing layups and free throws.”
Before heading home at the end of the fall semester, Temple assistant coach Meg Barber worked with Nwaigwe on her offensive game, instructing her to make 100 left-handed layups in a row before she could leave the gym.
“My whole confidence and mindset just went away,” Nwaigwe said. “I’m just so much more relaxed here and now playing my game with no restrictions.”
After averaging 12.1 minutes, 2.2 points, and 0.9 blocks in nine nonconference games, Nwaigwe is second in the American Athletic Conference with 1.6 blocks per game. She is also averaging 3.3 points in 14.9 minutes.
“She’s a presence,” Cardoza said. “She’s blocking shots, and she’s being aggressive. Ugo’s size definitely helps us.”
In six of the 15 games Nwaigwe has appeared in this season, she has recorded two-or-more blocks seven times, including two games with five blocks.
“When you have someone like Ugo step in, it takes pressure off of some of the guards,” Fountain said. “Coach [Cardoza] is big on who will step up for us, so seeing someone like Ugo come in and do what is asked of her is awesome.”
Mark McCormick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MarkJMcCormick