Nneka Ezeigbo runs with the ball during Robert Morris University’s 65-54 NEC Tournament tournament win against Saint Francis on March 17, 2019.

Nneka Ezeigbo’s third season with the Robert Morris University women’s basketball team began with her sporting long red braids last November. The 6-foot-2 Ewing product’s hair tends to stand out as much as her game.

“I made hair colors my thing,” Ezeigbo said. “During the season, I’d switch it up. Whatever my teammates felt like me doing next, I’d switch my hair up. It all started last year with a bold color. I think it was a pink and purplish. After that, I thought, ‘I like this.’ And decided I’d start putting colors in my hair, and everyone liked it.”

The junior center does her own hair. By February she had opted for a vibrant orange that RMU head coach Charlie Buscaglia compared to the old Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniforms. And when the Northeast Conference Tournament began, she went back to black, albeit with differently styled braids.

“As a coach you get used to it,” Buscaglia said. “Whatever color she comes out with, it doesn’t take me away anymore because it’s kind of a staple for her.”

Buscaglia is thrilled to see that Ezeigbo’s basketball skills have become a lot more consistent than her hair styles. She was honored this year as the NEC Defensive Player of the Year and also earned Most Valuable Player honors in the NEC tournament after helping lead the Colonials to a 65-54 tournament win against Saint Francis on March 17.

By winning, the team earned its second NCAA tournament appearance in her three years there. The team went on to lose to Louisville, 69-34, in the first round on March 22.

“I had no idea I was going to get Defensive Player of the Year,” Ezeigbo said. “It was really nice to be recognized and be appreciated for the hard work that I’ve been doing. I feel like I’ve earned everything I’ve gotten.”

EHS graduate Nneka Ezeigbo celebrates with the NEC championship trophy following Robert Morris University’s win against Saint Francis on March 17, 2019.

Ezeigbo helped RMU go 22-11 overall and 16-2 in the NEC. She led the Colonials with career-high averages of 12.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. She was named first-team All-NEC this year after making the All-Rookie team her first year and the second team last year.

After attending Incarnation-St. James in Ewing, Ezeigbo played her high school basketball down the street at Notre Dame High School. She also played AAU for the New Jersey Cardinals, and drew the eye of Buscaglia and his staff early in high school.

“I saw a lot of potential,” Buscaglia said. “That was the real key with Nneka. She has great physical size. She’s very physically strong. She also did some things that you could see some flashes of something to really work with offensively and defensively.”

“She was very raw though when it came to being someone you could go to at first,” Buscaglia said.

Ezeigbo has grown significantly in her three years at RMU. It’s not just her hair that has changed, and it’s not just in basketball.

“Nneka wasn’t a finished product,” Buscaglia said. “She had a lot of work to do when she got here. We are very proud of how much she has developed and how much she will continue to develop, not just on the court, but off the court in the classroom.”

Ezeigbo went from being a nursing major to being a psychology major, and she earned a 4.0 GPA in the fall semester. She is hoping to eventually get her master’s and work as a substance abuse counselor.

“I was telling my teammates that honestly next year I’d be fine being done (playing) after I graduate,” Ezeigbo said. “But if I get an offer to play overseas, I wouldn’t mind playing for a couple years and then getting my master’s.”

Ezeigbo has been developing all aspects of her game since arriving at the Pittsburgh-area school. Her honors and awards are a tribute to her work ethic and improvements.

“Defense wasn’t always one of the strengths in my game,” Ezeigbo said. “A lot of things I did this year were things I was trying to do since freshman year. The moment I stepped in the door they were telling me things I had to do. I took it more to heart and pushed myself to do things I wasn’t comfortable with. Being outside my comfort zone has obviously helped me a lot in the defensive aspect of things.”

She said that charges were not a part of her game before she came to RMU. “I honestly did not know how to take one my freshman year. That’s something that has definitely developed and has helped my game.”

Ezeigbo made an immediate impact at RMU. She played in 33 games as a freshman and started 10 times while averaging 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. As a sophomore, she didn’t start any games but her minutes went up slightly and her points and rebounds per game increased to 10.5 and 7.0 respectively. Buscaglia often fielded questions about why she didn’t start last year.

“Early on in her career, it was the inconsistency,” he said. “She’d have games where she’d put up good numbers and they’d average out to be a great number, but then she had a lot of moments when she struggled to handle adversity and things we value so much in the program.”

Ezeigbo impressed in the NEC and during the first round of the NCAA tournament in the Louisville loss. She came a point and rebound away from a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds against Louisville, and scored back-to-back baskets to open the NCAA tournament.

“It was a great experience,” Ezeigbo said. “It always feels good to be able to play teams of such a high level. Being able to play against true post players that go back to the basket, that’s a challenge, but it’s something I enjoy doing because it’s something that I do. Playing against somebody else that does things that I do at a higher level is really fun for me.”

Her offseason work and dedication in practices, video study sessions and workouts helped Ezeigbo become a more polished player. She returned with two years of experience and felt like a new player this season.

“I feel like I have a lot more confidence this year,” Ezeigbo said. “A lot of that came from my team. They always had my back. They were always encouraging me and that helped a lot. Also being more emotionally stable on the court. A lot of times when I’d get frustrated, it affected my game. Being able to take a step back and think about my mistakes and then not let it affect the next play helped me a lot in my game this year.”

Ezeigbo is looking forward to another year of college basketball. She will return to Ewing for six weeks over the summer before returning to RMU motivated by some important goals.

“We want to have a better start to the season pre-conference and have that carry into the conference and then our goal is to always get another ring,” Ezeigbo said. “And being able to instill our principles and values into the freshmen as a senior and being there for them and working hard all the time for my team.”

Ezeigbo will be counted on to be a strong leader next year. She’s already serving as a leader because of her example.

“She wasn’t just a leader amongst the underclassmen, she was recognized as a leader with the upperclassmen because a great deal of respect was earned for her because of how much she pushed forward to change and do more and to be better,” Buscaglia said. “That really was the best leadership quality that she could have, and her voice was better this year, and her communication was much better.”

Ezeigbo will continue to work hard at all aspects of her game, and she will continue to have some fun with her hair. She has one more college season to unveil a few new looks.

“It depends on how I feel,” Ezeigbo said. “Some colors I’ll hold off ‘til next season so people can see it and since I’m playing, it’s my thing. Green was supposed to be put in earlier but the season is over now. I’m just going to rock the green now and maybe do it again next season.”