By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LA LAGUNA, Spain — When Elo Edeferioka stepped to the free throw line for Nigeria with 3.2 seconds to go against Greece Wednesday night, her team trailing by a point, its greatest success in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup would depend on her.
Nigeria had never reached the quarterfinal round in the 65-year history of the tournament and these foul shots could take them there, yet her demeanor remained stoic and focused.
These free throws meant more than helping Nigeria proceed in the tournament. They also would help her move on from her past. She had been in this situation before.
Edeferioka was an integral piece of Georgia Tech’s 2016-2017 women’s basketball team. She was a regular starter who averaged 6.5 points per game. She was also the third-most consistent free throw shooter on the team with a 71.4 percent success rate.
That season, Georgia Tech played its way into the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. It advanced all the way to the championship game against Michigan.
With the game tied at 67, Edeferioka was fouled on a shot attempt with 0.6 seconds remaining. She was awarded two free throws with the game on the line and a chance to win the tournament for Georgia Tech.
She missed both.
The game extended into overtime, then another overtime, then another. Georgia Tech ultimately lost in triple overtime, 89-79.
“Ever since then, when I step to the free throw line, that’s the only thing I think about,” Edeferioka said. “Because I was like ‘Oh my God, please give me another chance.’”
Her road to Georgia Tech had been a winding one. Edeferioka grew up in Warri, Nigeria, eight hours south of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja. She didn’t have the money to buy gym shoes or team jerseys or, sometimes, even get rides to and from the gym. She would walk home from practice late at night.
Despite the odds being stacked against her, she kept her dream alive. She made Nigeria’s Under-18 national team in 2010. Her performance with the junior national team created attention in the United States, and she was offered a scholarship to attend Life Centre Academy, a high school in New Jersey. After high school, Edeferioka earned a scholarship to Hofstra University. She elected to transfer to Georgia Tech after two seasons.
That second chance at the foul line materialized Wednesday on a global stage in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain. Representing her nation instead of her school, Edeferioka had the chance to make history for Nigeria. Instead of letting her past consume her, she trusted what it taught her.
“At that point, I wasn’t thinking about anything else,” Edeferioka said. “The only thing that came to my mind was the free throws from a year ago. This time around I didn’t look at the bench or nobody. I was just so focused on the rim and I was like ‘You know what? I got this.’”
She buried both.
Nigeria defeated Greece, 57-56, to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals. The clutch performance was a long time coming for Edeferioka.
“I had so much confidence walking to the free-throw line and making the two free throws,” Edeferioka said. “I’m really so excited but at the same time I gotta stay focused on our game tomorrow.”
The game tomorrow is against the USA, which has won the last two tournaments en route to its current 19-game World Cup winning streak. Riding high on momentum and the support of those at home, Edeferioka and Nigeria don’t feel the weight of the moment.
“We’re just gonna take it one game at a time like we have always done,’ Edeferioka said. “We’re gonna do what we do best. No matter what the outcome is, we are gonna give all thanks to God. Right now, we are just focused on us and getting in the right mindset and taking it from there.”