Little rebounder shoots 3s, too

Nina Mandell

Posting up against a 6-foot-2 Fighting Illini forward on the foul line, junior Ifeoma Okonkwo looked miniature.

But as Northwestern’s emerging go-to player ducked her way around freshman Danyel Crutcher to score a deceptively easy-looking layup, Okonkwo continued to prove that she could play with the big girls.

And as a three guard, she can shoot some key 3-pointers too.

Okonkwo led NU in scoring with 19 points against Illinois, including the 3-pointer that capped an NU comeback early in the second half to put the Wildcats ahead for the final time in the 73-65 loss.

“She’s a heck of a ballplayer,” NU coach Beth Combs said. “She’s a phenomenal athlete, she understands what she needs to do to play the game and every game she’s getting better at that.”

Okonkwo’s ability to get steals also is turning out to be one of her best assets. She had a game-leading four steals.

She also grabbed two offensive rebounds from the bigger Illini team, more than any of her taller teammates.

The Cats need all the help they can get down low. NU was outrebounded 39-29 and outscored in the paint 38-24.

“We needed to deny the ball more, we could have fought more inside,” sophomore A.J. Glasauer said. “But we can compensate (for our lack of size) with athletes like Ifeoma.”

Combs often puts Okonkwo in as a forward to fill in for injured post player Suzanne Morrison.

While this may be the year that makes Okonkwo a leader for the Cats, she has not been quiet in her past two seasons. She was the team’s leading rebounder last season, averaging 5.6 boards a game, and was third overall in scoring for the Cats.

Her career-high point total was 16 entering this season — a feat she topped already this year and one that Combs expects her to top in the future.

And after shooting 9 for 12 against Illinois, Okonkwo’s future looks promising.

“(Okonkwo’s) biggest obstacle is herself,” Combs said. “As her confidence goes, so does her team go. She’s starting to realize that she has the potential to be one of the best players in the league.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected].