How former Savannah State basketball star Ezinne Kalu made her way to the Tokyo Olympics – Savannah Morning News

Savannah State women’s basketball coach Cedric Baker faces a dilemma when he watches the United States Olympic women’s basketball team’s opener against Nigeria in Tokyo early Tuesday morning.
Should he do the usual and root for Team USA, coached by Dawn Staley of the University of South Carolina, a coach he has gone head-to-head against a few times? Or should he go against the tide and back the Nigerian team that features his former Tigers player Ezinne Kalu?
“I’m a big fan of women’s basketball and promoting our sport,” said Baker, who has coached the Tigers for 17 years. “You always root for the home team, but Ezinne means a lot to me. So I’m hoping both teams play well.”
๐™ƒ๐™ค๐™ฌ ๐™ฉ๐™ค ๐™ฌ๐™–๐™ฉ๐™˜๐™ ๐™€๐™ฏ๐™ž๐™ฃ๐™ฃ๐™š!#HailSSU | #SSU | @DtigressNG | @_the9jaqueen
Kalu was a prep star in her days at Science Park High in New Jersey, becoming the first player in school history to score 2,000 points.
A 2015 graduate of SSU with a degree in African studies, Kalu owns the school’s NCAA Division I scoring record with 2,119 career points. She made the 2012 All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team and was named to the 2015 All-MEAC Tournament team and 2015 All-MEAC first team. She led several of the most successful women’s basketball teams in school history during her career as a Tiger.
In 2015, Kalu led the Tigers to their first MEAC title and the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament. SSU lost in the first round to a South Carolina squad coached by Staley, now also the U.S. Olympic coach. 
Kalu was born in Newark, New Jersey as a dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States. Her father is from Nigeria and her mother is from South Carolina. 
The 29-year-old has been sharing her experiences in Tokyo on her Twitter feed at @_the9jaqueen. She is on top of the world getting a chance to represent Nigeria in the Olympics.
Ezinne Kalu will definitely have the whole world glued to their TV because of her exemplary performance at the @Olympics
“If you told 21-year-old me that I’d be playing for a national team or in the Olympics, I would look at you like you had three heads,” Kalu said in an SSU press release. “That’s huge! I am just a young girl from New Jersey who went to an HBCU and now I am going to be playing in the Tokyo Olympics.”
Baker stays in close touch with Kalu, currently playing professionally in France, and is looking forward to watching her on television as the first Olympics player he has coached.
“Ezinne was always driven as a basketball player, but first and foremost, she was also motivated in the classroom. That’s what made her such a special student-athlete,” Baker said. “I remember recruiting her and was so glad she chose to come to SSU. Everyone at the school played a part in the process of her coming here.”
Baker said SSU football legend Shannon Sharpe was being inducted into the school’s hall of fame while Kalu was visiting on a recruiting trip.
“I remember Ezinne saying that we’d be putting her in the hall of fame one day,” Baker said. “Seeing Shannon go in helped motivate her and stay committed to living out her dream. And she has shown if you put in the work, success will follow.”
Baker remembers going to an Adidas national event in Atlanta to scout Kalu when she was in high school.
“I was impressed with her fundamentals,” Baker said. “She was a good ball handler and had excellent passing ability, and a true jump shot — she had the total package,” Baker said. “Once she got to the Division I level, what separated her from the rest was her willingness to accept constructive criticism and be coachable.
“And she is a student of the game — putting in a lot of work mentally in the film room, while having the ability to elevate her game physically.”
After graduating from SSU, Kalu immediately started playing professionally in Europe. She’s had stints with teams in Portugal, Hungary and Germany before landing in France, where she averaged 15.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists in the 2019-20 season for Landerneau BB.
She started playing for Nigeria in 2011, and the point guard has served as a captain and co-captain of the squad in recent years. This will be the second appearance in the Olympics for Nigeria. Nigeria qualified after winning the 2019 Federation Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) Africa Championship. Nigeria beat Senegal 60-55 in the championship game, and Kalu averaged 13.0 points, three steals and 3.2 assists per game to earn MVP honors at the tournament.
Baker said he’s just as proud of Kalu off the court as he is of her as a player.
“She’s a great person who made lasting relationships with her teammates and everyone at SSU. That gives my heart joy and really makes me happy,” Baker said. “I’m pleased to see her playing at an elite level, and she’s gone against coach Staley several times at South Carolina — so she’s going against a familiar face and these aren’t unchartered waters.
“I’m going to be rooting for both. As her former coach and a fan of women’s basketball, I can’t lose.”
Dennis Knight covers sports for the Savannah Morning News. Contact him at Twitter: @DennisKnightSMN


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