College basketball players have big dreams. Monmouth’s Sam Ibiezugbe is no exception, but his are of a very different nature, of global proportions.
“Ten years from now, I hope to be a peace ambassador,” Ibiezugbe said. “I want to be an advocate for peace wherever I go and be the voice for the voiceless. I think we need more advocates for peace right now than we need soldiers on the war front.”
Ibiezugbe, a 6-foot-11, 245-pound sophomore, came from Nigeria to attend The Master’s School in Simsbury, a nondenominational Christian day school with about 300 students, where he played soccer and began playing basketball. Barely able to catch a pass at first, he developed well enough to average 20 points and 14 rebounds as a senior and earn Division I offers, accepting the chance to play for King Rice at Monmouth. He worked with a trainer and mentor, Larry Marshall, in New Jersey during the summers.
Masters coach Tobias Ceasar said the school has purchased more than 40 tickets to watch Ibiezugbe play against the UConn men on Saturday at 4 p.m. in the XL Center.
“You meet amazing people in life,” Ibiezugbe said, “and in Connecticut I was shown a lot of love, like I am here at Monmouth. The love out there was amazing, the support was amazing, The Master’s School — great academics, great people. It was easy for me to connect with the environment and the people, themselves. For me, this is more like playing at the place where it all started, it’s a very happy feeling, a very exciting feeling.”
The Huskies (5-2) are trying to find themselves after one-sided losses to Michigan State and Arkansas last weekend and a harder-than-it-should-have-been overtime victory over Columbia on Wednesday night.
Monmouth (3-4), which plays in the MAAC with Fairfield and Quinnipiac, has never played UConn before, but has a history of knocking off high-majors in early-season games — ask UCLA, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Memphis.
Ibiezugbe didn’t play in the first three games this season, then got in against Virginia and went 4 of 5 from the floor for eight points with three rebounds in 14 minutes. He’s been averaging 10 minutes per game.
“He’s come a long way,” Ceasar said, “but he’s got a long way to go. Can he play professionally? Yes. Can he make it to the highest level, the NBA? He’d have to work a lot for that. But with Sam, that doesn’t define him. His education is what he is using basketball for.”
Ibiezugbi is greatly concerned about the violence in his native Nigeria, where the Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of young girls in 2014 and in the surrounding countries. Ibiezugbe, a criminal justice major, hopes to work for the United Nations.
“I want to be able to speak up for women and children around the world,” he said, “and try to end the wars that are going on. That would be the aspiration of mine, to travel around the world someday and condemn the violence. It’s a passion of mine.”
With his height and size, commanding attention isn’t hard for Ibiezugbe. In Simsbury, where he lived with host families, he left a mark in a community that helped support him through the grieving period when his father, Matthew, passed during his time there.
Ibiezugbe developed a special bond with Logan Schoenhardt, a fourth-grader at Master’s suffering from terminal cancer who met Tom Brady at a Monday Night Football game last year. Logan came to Hamden last December to visit Ibiezugbe and celebrate a Monmouth victory, three months before he died at age 10.
“We’re K through 12 here, and when Sam walked the campus, all the little kids would come and high-five him,” Ceasar said. “He’s everything this school stands for as far as developing good character. Sam was a model at everything, always on time, stayed late, worked hard.”
UConn, which plays Syracuse at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic next Tuesday, has several important players either out injured or playing through injuries. Monmouth’s Micah Seaborn, a 6oot-5 redshirt junior and one of the best players in the MAAC, returned from a knee injury and scored 21, with 12 rebounds, in a win over Bucknell last Monday.
“We have to make sure we keep [Seaborn] in front of us,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said, “and not give him 3s. What we want to do is defend with all five in great position, because they are going to challenge us, sometimes with four out, one in. We have to beat them on the boards and take great shots ourselves. They have some big men who come in and do a great job posting up. We’re going to have to play a total game – perimeter defense and low-post defense. They are just going to be super-aggressive and our intensity has to be high from the tap. They are going to challenge us at both ends of the court.”
On the injury front for the Huskies, Alterique Gilbert’s left shoulder is still causing him discomfort. He is getting treatment but is unlikely to play vs. Monmouth. Tyler Polley jammed his shoulder diving for a loose ball against Columbia and is getting treatment; his availability will be determined game-time. Eric Cobb (high ankle sprain) is improving and will be evaluated Saturday morning. Jalen Adams (ankle) and Christian Vital (shoulder) are expected to play.
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