February 23, 2007

Sister act gets Mojidi on winning path

Nofi Mojidi has never been one to back down from a challenge. For a women’s basketball squad with its back against the wall and its season hanging in the balance, that determination could be just what the team needs to jump off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament pool.

With the Maroons (18–6, 7–6) in desperate need of a win this Saturday against 12th-ranked archrival Wash U (19–5, 11–2) to have any chance at making the field of 59, the third-year guard will need to channel a resiliency and competitiveness that began for her in elementary school.

Seven years old and newly arrived in the United States from Nigeria, Mojidi’s basketball education started alongside her twin sister Safi. From the moment the two first picked up a basketball, a rivalry was born. The more offensively-gifted Safi—now an All–Atlantic 10 guard at the University of Rhode Island—and the defensively-inclined Nofi would test each other’s wills in games of one-on-one, the intensity of the games escalating as the pair’s basketball skills developed.

“I pretty much played really tough defense on her and allowed her offensive game to get a lot better,” Nofi said. “And you know, she’d teach me how to shoot jumpers and whatnot.”

Toward the end of their junior high school days, as both players’ careers began to take off at the Bullis School in Silver Spring, MD, the one-on-one games stopped. The competition became too fierce, with neither sister willing to concede an inch, regardless of the physical cost.

“It wasn’t that we were fighting, but we were so competitive that, you know, we each wanted to win, and we don’t call fouls, so we’d foul each other,” Nofi said. “It’d get to a point where we didn’t want to play each other because we were fouling so much. So the one-on-one game was just to see how tough each other was.”

That fearlessness in the face of unrelenting competition helped Mojidi become an impact player from the first day she set foot on the Ratner court. Tenacious in both her defense and in her lightning-quick drives to the basket, she entered the UAA schedule averaging a career-best 18.2 points per game, including a season-high 26 in an 82–72 win over UW–Whitewater.

On the flip side, that tenacity has started holding Mojidi back from delivering her A-game during the squad’s recent slide. With opponents’ defense adjusting to her aggressive style of play and her teammates struggling against well prepared foes, Mojidi has at times tried to do too much. Doggedly attempting layup after layup from difficult angles, her shooting percentage and scoring have dipped to season lows. After being held to single digits in points only once in the squad’s first 19 games, Mojidi has failed to break double figures in three of the last six outings and scored only 10 Sunday at Carnegie Mellon.

“It seems as though a lot of times we wait around and let the opponent dictate how the game is gonna be played,” Mojidi said. “But that just leads to close-played games where we’re trying to battle it out in the end. In those sorts of situations sometimes I force a lot because I’m trying to make something happen just because it’s a close game, and something has to happen.”

There have been signs of a return to early-season form in recent contests. Against Emory, her defense at halfcourt nearly keyed a comeback in the final minute, and she stepped up her play down the stretch at Rochester in a late-game flurry of activity after going scoreless for the first 35 minutes. But those have been only glimpses, fleeting snapshots in a season that has faded fast in the glare of the national spotlight.

With the Wash U athletics department doing their best to fill the seats at the WU Field House, the Maroons will have not only history to deal with, but a hostile crowd as well. Winners of 11 of 12 after the conference season-opening defeat at Ratner, the Bears have done their best to establish themselves as national contenders and are currently tied for first in the UAA with sixth-ranked NYU (22–2, 11–2).

Saturday Mojidi and the Maroons will have one final shot at redemption for a season that has nearly spiraled out of control. A win, and Chicago will have reason to tune in to selection Sunday, its postseason chances given a stay of execution. A loss, and it’s just a long drive back to Hyde Park.