North Dakota State’s Lawrence Alexander Jr.: Shooting for his son

Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia
Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia

Lawrence Alexander Jr. corralled a short-hopped bounce pass on the right wing with 11 seconds remaining in the 2014 NCAA Tournament second round and his 12th seed North Dakota State Bison trailing fifth-seed Oklahoma by three.

He had no fear. The pressure of playing the role of giant-killer against a national power on national television, and taking the biggest shot in school history — one on which the hopes and dreams of an entire state rested — had nothing on trying to keep his son alive as a poor teenage father in Peoria, Illinois.

“That was an amazing day,” says Alexander, who calmly drilled the game-tying 3-pointer en route to a then career-high 28 points to lead the Bison to the first NCAA Tournament win in school history.

But it wasn’t the most amazing day of Alexander’s life.

“Not by a long shot,” he says, with palpable joy in his voice as he thinks back four and a half years earlier to Oct. 26, 2009, the day his son, Lawrence III was born.

“The birth of my son is the greatest moment of my life, it’s not even close,” says Alexander, who had turned 18 just four days before Lawrence III entered the world. “I was broke, I was scared and I didn’t know how I was going to keep him alive, and I am forever a better person for it,” he says.

Now 23, as a 6’3” point guard, Alexander has emerged as a bona fide NBA prospect and mid-major star, earning Summit League Player of the Year honors by averaging 18.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Achievements and honors that, along with his shot against Oklahoma, he says would not have been possible without his son.

“I don’t think I’d be playing basketball if he wasn’t born,” says Alexander. “He definitely changed my whole life, my responsibilities completely changed: It wasn’t just worry about yourself and your own needs, it’s you have to put someone else whose entire life depends on you first.”

Lawrence Alexander. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics
Lawrence Alexander. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics

Against all odds

Poor, black and a teenage father; Alexander had three strikes against him in the eyes of many by the time he turned 18.

“I kind of had a lot on my plate before getting here,” says Alexander. “My senior year (of high school) I was becoming a father, I had to balance school and basketball and becoming a father.”

But Alexander credits the odds that seemed to be stacked against him for making him the man he is today.

“I think everything I faced growing up, the family I have, and of course my son, are what made me who I am today,” he says.

Alexander was born and raised in Peoria, a city that sits on the Illinois River in the heart of the state.

“It’s a great city and a good community, but you still have things that make you lose focus, a lot of danger,” says Alexander of his hometown, where nearly 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

“The crime rate has been going up every year. You have peers who try to force you to do things that are not healthy for you, healthy for your body,” he says.

Alexander admits that he didn’t always have his priorities in order as a teenager, but that all changed when his son was born.

“Once I became a father, I started to get a lot better,” he says, “he turned me into a better person.”

On the hardwood, Alexander had a solid career at Peoria Manual High School, averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game as a senior for the Illinois Class 2A runners-up, earning First Team All-Conference, All-State and state tournament MVP honors.

But upon graduation, he found himself without a single Division I scholarship offer.

“North Dakota State actually wanted me to walk-on,” he says of his senior year, “but my family didn’t have the money so I couldn’t.”

But he was able to land a scholarship to play prep basketball for St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisc. It was an opportunity that Lawrence could not pass on if he was going to make a run at his dream of playing college ball, but one that meant moving away from his young son, which he calls the hardest decision he’s had to make in his life.

“It’s definitely hard. No father wants to be away from their child for not even a half hour. But I knew it could lead to a better life for him,” he says. “I knew once I left it would be tough on me, him and his mom, but I knew when it was all said and done he’d be able to have things that he needs and he wants.”

Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.
Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.

Fargo-bound

After a standout prep season at Northwest Military Academy, Alexander was offered a scholarship by then head coach Saul Phillips, and jumped at the opportunity. The only thing was, he didn’t know the first thing about Fargo.

“No, actually, I couldn’t,” he laughs when asked if he could have located Fargo on a map at the time.

“When [Phillips] old me he was in Fargo North Dakota I was like, ‘where is that?’ All I could think of was just a bunch of farmland and nothing surrounding it,” he says.

But Alexander says he immediately warmed to the notoriously frigid city.

“Once I got here it definitely changed my mind. I came here and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I was kind of spoiled for the first two years, because they didn’t really have a bad winter, but last year it definitely caught up to me.”

Far apart but always in his heart

For Alexander, playing college basketball and earning a college degree has meant spending most of his four-years in college nearly 700 miles away from his son, something he calls “excruciating.”

“I love him, and I want to be around him all the time, but I think the sacrifices today will provide him with a much, much better tomorrow,” he says.

Alexander has kept up with his over the phone, facetime and the internet, and remains a constant presence in his life even from afar.

“He was born with a basketball,” he says proudly of his son, “he had one in his crib.”

But while Alexander admits he’d be happy if his son enjoyed the same successes as he has on the court, he isn’t trying to push him into the sport.

“He’s had a ball with him ever since he could walk, but he actually played peewee baseball last spring. He wants to play flag football, but I don’t think his mom is going to let him,” he laughs. “Honestly, I don’t want him to feel like he has to follow in my footsteps or live up to anything I’ve done, as long as he’s happy and healthy, I’m happy.”

Announcing himself to the world

Alexander stepped out onto the hardwood at the Spokane Arena on March 20, 2014 and stared across the court at fifth-seed Oklahoma. He saw as not only chance to prove that he belonged on the same floor as one of the premier programs in the country, but also as an chance to pay back the school that had given him the biggest opportunity of his life.

“North Dakota State gave me a chance to continue to play basketball and even more importantly to get a degree, it gave me a big chip on my shoulder to prove myself against everyone else and to play against Oklahoma,” he says.

Up until that point, Alexander had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career, averaging between 10.8 and 12.8 points per game in each of his first three seasons. But against the Sooners, Lawrence played out of his mind, drilling 10-of-15 shots and 4-of-7 three-pointers.

The monster game served as a launch pad for Alexander’s career. As a senior, Alexander has scored 20 or more points 14 times, including 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half, in a 57-56 win in the Summit League championship game over archrival South Dakota State.

Alexander has vowed to savor every moment and leave every once of himself on the floor when 15th seed North Dakota State takes the floor against second-seed Gonzaga in the final NCAA Tournament of his career.

“This is it. I’m forever grateful for everything North Dakota State has done for me and I’m going to give them everything I have in return,” he says.

When his college career does come to an end, Alexander would like to continue his career professionally, either in the states or overseas.

“Hopefully I can continue to play basketball and be somewhere playing professional basketball, but if not, I’d love to get into coaching,” he says.

But wherever he goes and whatever he does, his motivation remains the same as when he first set out on his journey five years ago.

“Whatever I do, I’m going to be doing it to provide with my son,” he says.

Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.
Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Lucky to be alive: Robert Morris’ senior Lucky Jones’ story of survival

Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics
Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

Lucious “Lucky” Jones Jr. isn’t supposed to be here.

The product of one of the most impoverished and dangerous cities in the country, Jones has gone on to become Robert Morris’ all-time leading rebounder, will finish his career by stepping out into the game’s grandest stage in the NCAA Tournament, and become the first of his six siblings to graduate college.

But Lucky Jones’ story goes far beyond the hard-luck kid makes good tale oft-told this time of year. Lucky Jones isn’t supposed to be here, on this earth, period. Lucky Jones shouldn’t be alive today.

“I almost passed away when I was a young boy,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I was almost a year old, and my parents didn’t think I was going to make it to a year. I was in and out of the hospital everyday.”

Now Six-feet-six-inches and 210 pounds of wiry strength and chiseled fast-twitch muscles, Jones spent the first year of his life on deaths doorstep. Born with Hirschsprung’s disease, a condition in which nerve cells in the colon don’t form completely, Jones endured numerous surgeries and had to wear a colostomy bag from birth until almost the age of two.

It was then, weakened, malnourished, less than two years old, and fighting for his life, that Jones first flashed the bullheaded determination that he would harness years later on the hardwood to become a hellacious defender and ferocious rebounder.

“Lucky is definitely a fighter; he fights with everything he has,” says Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole of the player he calls the, “heart and soul” of the team.

“The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it, but I pulled through,” says Jones, with a chuckle, downplaying miraculous nature of his survival, which earned him his nickname.

In a perfect world, after surviving such a harrowing experience as a child, things would have come easy from there on out in life for Jones. Instead, he would find himself facing long odds and daunting obstacles time and time again.

“It’s been constant my whole life,” he says of adversity and heartbreak, “I just live with it and deal with it on a daily basis.”

But every time, he would face them down, and emerge triumphant, flashing his trademark smile.

The struggle in Newark

Jones was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, to Vicki and Lucious Jones Sr. Vicki’s only child, Jones grew up with six older half-siblings, all of whom he says played a big part in his life.

A struggling city defined by its docks, rail yards, dead-ends, and crooked politicians (five of the city’s last seven mayors have been indicted on criminal charges), Newark was once ranked as the “Most Dangerous City in the Nation,” by time magazine, and still boasts one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country.

“It was hard. You didn’t really want to go outside every day, knowing what kind of things went on,” says Jones. “Growing up there, praying everyday, saying your prayers to try and stay away from the rough crowd. I was always trying to keep myself around great people.”

Jones credits those “great people,” chief among them his mother and father, as well as several cousins and friends, for keeping him out of trouble. And he credits the game of basketball, introduced to him by Lucious Sr.

“My father, he played the game till he couldn’t play it no more, and I wanted to follow his footsteps and just try to be better,” says Jordan of his introduction to the sport. “He opened my eyes to have this opportunity that I have right now. He’s the reason why I play basketball – that’s the main reason right there.”

According to Jones, from the time he received his first basketball as a present for his second birthday, to the day he cut down the net as the Northeast Conference Champion a week ago, his father has been a constant presence as a mentor, guide and, when needed, kick in the ass throughout his career.

“He’ll push you to the limit,” says Jones. “He really helped me in all my years of playing basketball, to understand that the game can have its ups and downs.”

Suiting up for St. Anthony’s

By the time he got to high school, Jones was talented enough to suit up for legendary head coach Bob Hurley and his storied St. Anthony’s program. But early on in his career, he seldom left the bench.

“I was pretty much a tall, lanky spot up shooter who could knock down open shots,” says Jones, who has since emerged as arguably the best defender in the Northeast Conference.

According to Jones his defensive development began when Hurley and his longtime assistant, Ben Gamble, sat him down in Hurley’s office for a frank conversation during his junior year

“Coach Hurley had conversations with me about being a defensive player, also with coach Gamble, and they sat me down and said I had to bring more to the table.”

According to Jones, over the summer, he dedicated himself to transforming his body and his game.

“That whole offseason I spent on getting stronger, trying to get quicker laterally, and trying to stick it out,” he says.

As a senior, Jones averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds for a St. Anthony’s squad that went a perfect 33-0 and claimed the USA Today national championship. But Jones presence was far bigger on the defensive end, where, he locked down future NBAer Michael Kidd-Gilchrest en route to the New Jersey state championship.

But even when he was winning a championship during a perfect senior season, Jones was facing an onslaught of losses, as an older sister passed away from complications of the flu and an older brother was sent to prison for drug related offenses.

“That was tough, but it’s life, and you learn to live with it and just keep pushing through,” he says.

Finding a home at the last minute

Despite winning a national championship, Jones’ phone remained silent throughout the early, and well into the late signing periods. Then, in what was tantamount to college basketball’s 25th hour, it finally rang.

“Coach Andy [Toole], being from New Jersey, really liked the way my game was, really liked the way I played, liked my defensive performance,” says Jones. “He gave me a shot and I just took that and ran with it.”

And ran with it he did, scoring 1604 points, ripping down a program record 836 rebounds and swiping 166 steals while hitting 80-percent of his free-throws over his four-year career.

But the one thing that had eluded Jones, one of just two four-year seniors on the Colonials, was a trip to the NCAA Tournament, as Jones and the Colonials lost twice in the championship game during his first three seasons.

“I definitely went into this year with the mindset that I was going to leave everything I had on the floor, and if we didn’t make the tourney I would know I had given it everything I had,” he says.

Jones tied a career-high by pouring in 27 points in 24 minutes off the bench in an opening round win over Wagner, then scored 11 points and added three steals in a semifinal win over Bryant to reach the NEC championship, where he had a change to ice the game with one second remaining and the Colonials leading 66-63.

Normally automatic at the line, the emotions of the moment got the best of Jones, who missed both shots with tears streaming from his eyes, but finally earned the elusive trip to the NCAAs when St. Francis’ last minute heave back-rimmed as the final horn sounded.

In the wild celebration that followed, Jones shared a moment first with his mother and then with the man who first introduced him to the game so many years ago.

“It was very emotional, very satisfying, very overwhelming. It was a great feeling,” he says of the moments he shared with his parents.

Jones will finally get to set foot on the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday, when the 16th seeded Colonials face off against fellow 16-seed North Florida in the NCAA Tournament First Round. Jones doesn’t care that the first – and possibly only – time he sets foot on the NCAA Tournament hardwood will be, in essence, in a play-in game.

“This is something I’ve waited my whole life for, and I’m going to cherish every minute of it,” he says.

Jones will graduate in the spring with a degree in management. A huge sneakerhead, one day he would love to open his own shoe store, but he isn’t about to let go of playing the game anytime soon.

“I want to play professionally, whether that’s in the states or overseas it doesn’t really matter, I just want to continue to play and continue to have fun,” he says.

But he isn’t ready to start looking at life beyond Robert Morris basketball yet.

“I know no 16 has ever beaten a one, but I like those odds,” he says, “they’ve been working in my favor my whole life.”

Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics
Lucky Jones. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

The Brawling Rowleys: How Albany basketball brothers Mike and Sam Rowley formed a bond

Mike Rowley and his older brother Sam have forged a bond by playing together at Albany. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Mike Rowley and his older brother Sam have forged a bond by playing together at Albany. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Every once in a great while, a basketball game would break out in the middle of an all-out brawl between Sam and Mike Rowley. It was clockwork-like a routine that began as young children in Sydney, Australia, and carried over into adolescence and on to young adulthood.

“You put us together and it was probably a recipe for disaster – you put us together in something where there would be a winner and a loser and it was going to be a fight,“ says Sam, 22, now a bruising 6-foot-6-inch 230-pound senior forward for NCAA Tournament 14-seed University at Albany.

“When we were younger we often would fight basically over everything because we were pretty close in age and really competitive,“ adds Mike, Albany basketball’s 6-foot-8-inch 230-pound sophomore forward, who is two years Sam’s junior.

“God do I feel bad for their parents,” laughs Albany head coach Will Brown. “Who on earth would want to get in the middle and try to break up a fight between those two?

These days, the brawling Rowley’s are fighting on the same side, and have helped to lead the Great Danes to their third straight NCAA Tournament — Sam’s third straight Big Dance and Mike’s second.

They’re having a blast doing it.

“Having a brother on the team is just one of the best things,” says Sam, Albany’s starting power forward, who leads the Great Danes in scoring (14.0 ppg), rebounds (7.7 rpg) and free throw percentage (.815) while shooting .511 from the floor.

“It’s really been a very fun experience, one that I’m really thankful for,” adds Mike, who has played primarily at the four and five positions, averaging 34 minutes, 3.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game off the bench.

“I really do think they are enjoying the fact that they get a chance to play together,” says Brown.

Not long ago, such a statement about the relationship between the two brothers would have been akin to heresy.

The brothers grew up in Sydney, Australia, as the youngest – along with Sam’s twin sister – of Catherine and Gregg Rowley’s five children. From a very young age both boys displayed athletic ability, and the innate ability to get under each other’s skin.

“The issue with Sam and Mike is they were overly competitive to a fault growing up, and that was why they could not coexist together in a competitive sports environment for more than 30 seconds or a minute,” says Brown.

“We weren’t very close growing up,” says Mike, adding, “there were definitely days when we needed to be anywhere but around each other.”

“We were quite close in age, so we were really competitive growing up and never quite saw eye to eye,” echoes Sam.

Basketball wasn’t the first sport for either, with Sam excelling in Australian football (AFL), and Mike emerging as a young star in rugby.

“My first sport was Australian football, and basketball was just sort of a summer sport. You had to choose a winter and summer sport, and I chose basketball because I didn’t want to spend my Saturdays, all day, out on an oval,” explains Sam, adding, “My brother was a really, really good rugby player. He was choosing between basketball and trying to make a career professionally in rugby.”

Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Playing different sports during the winter months, the brothers were able to generally stay out of each other’s way, but once spring rolled around and the two found themselves on the same court, all hell would break lose.

“We were too close in age, everything was too competitive, so we weren’t the closest,” says Sam.

“You can only take your older brother always thinking he’s right so many times,” laughs Mike.

Adding to the conflicts was that Mike always seemed to be following in his older brother’s footsteps, while perennially playing in his shadow. Sam starred at Knox Grammar High School, leading Knox its first Combined Associated Schools (CAS) championship in 14 years by totaling 21.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists, while also starring for the Australian U-19 team, winning a gold medal at FIBA Oceania Youth Championship in Guam, and starring on the international circuit.

Mike came into his own as a star when his time came, guiding Knox to a 41-6 record over his four years as a power forward, and averaging 23 points per game, 11 rebounds per game and six assists per game as a senior captain, while also excelling for the U-19 team. But his older brother was always there to take him down a peg – or keep his ego in check, depending on who you talk to.

“Big brothers have a way of always letting their younger brother know, no matter what we do, that they did it first and did it better,” says Mike.

“I thought it was important for Mike to not lose focus of how good he could be, and to keep him from getting big-headed,” says Sam, adding, “and if I happened to also point out areas I had done more in, then that was just a coincidence,” he laughs.

Sam signed to play for Brown in 2011, helping to usher in an Australian era for the Great Danes. And after spending his first season sitting mostly on the end of the bench, Sam came into his own as an automatic scorer on the low post with a plethora of low-post moves (“Crocodile rolls,” as Brown calls them), helping to lead the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore and junior.

Mike Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Mike Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

When it came Mike’s turn to graduate high school, he had two big decisions to make. First, would he pursue rugby and turn pro, or basketball and head to the states and play college? And after he decided that hoops was his sport, where would he play?

“We had consulted mom and dad and Sam about recruiting Mike,” says Brown. “And originally Sam just shrugged his shoulders and I don’t think he was too keen on the idea, because of the competitiveness and the relationship being the way it was.”

Eventually, the older brother came around, but Brown and his staff still had to convince Mike, Catherine and Gregg.

“Mom and dad originally I think wanted them to go their separate ways. They didn’t want Mike to be in Sam’s shadow and the recognized the competitiveness that was in the household.”

Eventually, Mike decided to play with his brother and, according to all parties, it’s gone much smoother than anyone had imagined.

“Now that we came to college, we’re a bit older, and, yeah, we put up with each other a bit more so we’ve definitely gotten closer,” says Mike, who credits his older brother’s mentorship with helping him cope with living in a new country a world away from family and friends. “Whenever I need help, he’s there to help me out.”

“It was really nice to have Mike here as a teammate, and to really kind of get to know each other all over again as adults and become genuinely close,” adds Sam, adding slyly, “he’s matured a bit – thankfully.”

According to Brown, both players are invaluable and irreplaceable to the program, and while both have matured and mellowed a bit with age, a key to Albany’s sustained success has been harnessing and controlling their competitive nature with one another.

“In practice I try not to match them up against each other too much. It get’s overly competitive,” says Brown. “There will be days in practice when I think Sam needs to raise his level, and when I get upset with him, I’ll put Mike on him and I won’t give Sam any foul calls, and it gets overly intense. And then at a point where I think it’s about to get ugly, I’ll put someone else on Sam.

“I’ll do the same with Mike. If I’m not happy with Mike’s aggressiveness, I’ll put Sam on him and let him beat him up,” laughs Brown. “I know how to use that dynamic against them, but I don’t use it too much because I don’t want a fight in practice.”

As for fights, neither brother can remember the last one they had, but their competitive nature still sneaks out in other ways.

“I think the only issue is mom and dad bought them a car this summer,” says Brown, trying hard to hold back laughter. “They bought them a Cadillac, and the idea was for them to share it. But Sam has not let Mike drive the car yet, not once! I said to him, ‘Sam, when are you going to let Mike drive the car?’ and he said, ‘Coach, I graduate in May, after I walk the stage I will hand Mike the keys.’”

According to both brothers, the true growth of their relationship can be seen in the dynamic between the two in games, where, because they play the same position, usually only one will have a chance to star at any given time.

“It was a bit tough, because obviously you want Sam to do well, and when he was doing well it meant I wouldn’t play,” says Mike. “And when I would play it would mean that he was having a bad game or in foul trouble. It was kind of one of us would play well to the other one’s detriment.”

“I really developed a new respect for Mike, because, obviously with me being an upper classman, he’s kind of getting the short end of the stick right now, and he’s absolutely been terrific about supporting me,” says Sam, adding, “I honestly think he’s going to wind up being the better player out of the two of us when all is said and done.”

Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

While their fighting days appear to be completely behind them, with both brothers now finally physically matured, who would win one final, no-holds barred throw down? Hypothetically speaking, of course.

“The older brother, absolutely, I would,” says Sam. “I’d have to find away. If Mike won the last fight between us, I’d officially be all washed up.”

Their head coach agrees when pressed on the subject.

“Mike’s still a puppy, and I gotta’ go with the older brother. I think if I locked them in a room and said one could come out, I think right now, Sam would come out, close the door, and say, ‘coach I’m out,’” says Brown. “But then he’d go back in and carry his brother out and say, ‘coach, I’ll take care of him.’ I gotta go with Sam, I think he’s the grizzly bear of the two.”

But Mike remains confident about his prospects of finding a way to win.

“Sam’s a lover, deep down,” Mike chuckles. “He would never fight me now. And I feel like if we fought, I would probably fight dirty, and I think I would come out the winner even though he’s a lot stronger than me.”

Now in their final semester together before Sam graduates, the brothers have been spending more time reflecting on their two years together, and both are extremely grateful for the experiences they have shared.

“I think there will be moments, where I do little stuff – not even basketball stuff – where we go out to eat and socialize, and next year without Sam it will feel strange,” says Mike.

“Looking back in 10 years it will be really awesome, and it is an awesome experience right now,” adds Sam.

Neither brother is ready for their career to end just yet, and after knocking off Stony Brook 50-49 in the America East championship game, both have their sights set squarely on pulling off the first NCAA Tournament upset in school history when they take on third-seed Oklahoma on Friday.

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Manhattan basketball’s Samson Akilo and Samson Usilo and their Nigerian bond and strife

Few Americans can imagine what it’s like to walk a single mile in Samson Akilo’s sizeable shoes, let alone understand the backbreaking load of fear, anguish and expectations he shouldered on every step of his nearly 5,300-mile odyssey.

But when he sits towards the end of the bench on Tuesday night in the NCAA Tournament First Round, Manhattan basketball’s 6-foot-8-inch freshman forward needs to only turn his head to the left to find someone who knows exactly what it is like to walk, step-for-step, along the same, winding, and arduous journey from Lagos, Nigeria to Manhattan College, that Akilo has trudged along for the past five years.

“It means everything to me, to have someone with me who knows exactly what I’m going through,” says Akilo of his teammate, countryman, best friend and “brother” Samson Usilo. “We’re the same — we come from the same city, the same culture, the same struggles. Having someone to help me out and be by my side is amazing.”

“Almost no Americans can really understand what it’s like, to be so far away from your family, to worry about them, to not be there to help if they need you, but to know they need you to be that far away,” echoes Usilo. “Samson knows and that helps me keep going.”

The parallels in the paths trod by Usilo and Akilo are staggering. Both were born in the same city in Nigeria. Both were the fifth child in their families — Akilo the youngest in his family and Usilo the fifth of six. Both grew up in meager means, and both lost their fathers far too young.

And both found salvation in basketball; a path to not to just simply survive — no small task in Nigeria, where the average life expectancy remains just 52 — but break down the door that stands between so many that grew up in similar circumstances and a better life.

And now, both are looking back across the Atlantic, hoping to use the game to help lift their families up with them to a better life.

“I am here because of them,” says Usilo of his family. “Everything I am doing is to try to help them have a better life. That’s why I get up every day, to try to make their life better.”

“Whether I can bring [my family] over here, or whether I go back to Nigeria, no matter what, I am going to be doing whatever can to help my family the most,” echoes Akilo.

The long journey

Samson Akilo. Photo credit: Carlisle Stockton / Manhattan Athletics

Present day Nigeria was carved out of the cradle of West Africa by European colonialism, and came under the British Empire in the late 1800s. The history of the people — more than 500 distinct ethnicities — that make up present day Nigeria goes back virtually to the beginning of civilization, serving as the site of numerous civilizations that rose and fell over many millennia.

Through its history, Nigeria has been a country of stark contrasts: serving first as a hub of the trans-Atlantic African Slave trade, and then as the base of the British anti-Slave movement. After achieving peaceful independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, the country almost immediately turned around and plunged into several years of civil war, followed by decades of military dictatorships and juntas.

“I don’t think many American’s really know what it is like to not know if you are going to be able to find food that week to stay alive, and that’s something many people in Nigeria face,” says Akilo.

And nowhere has Nigeria’s contrasts been more stark than Usilo and Akilo’s home city, Lagos.

The most populous city (between 17.5 and 21 million residents) in Africa’s most populous country, Lagos has been simultaneously boom and bust for virtually its entire existence. A port city sitting on a lagoon just off the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is Nigeria’s economic focal point, and is home to most of the country’s big business and financial institutions and industrial production. But in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers that stretch towards the burning African sun, commercial banks, oil refineries and bustling nightlife, sit slums, ghettos, a booming drug trade and organized crime underbelly, and unimaginable poverty.

“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had each other, and that was enough,” says Usilo of his family.

“We were poor,” says Akilo, before quickly correcting, “we weren’t poor — we had a roof over our heads and we had food, but we didn’t have much more.”

It was a life filled with danger, danger that remains for the families that Akilo and Usilo left behind.

“You definitely worry a lot about them, especially not being there,” says Usilo.

The Islamist terrorist movement Boko Haram has made (at least a few) international headlines by butchering entire towns and abducting men, women and children across northern Nigeria — including the horrific massacre of upwards of 2,000 people in a January attack on several villages. And while the group has, thus far, remained in northeast Nigeria — the complete other side of the country from Lagos — the threat to Usilo and Akilo’s family hovers over their heads, and weighs heavy on their hearts, every day.

“You definitely worry about it, because you don’t know when or where they might come from, and they haven’t been caught or captured,” says Akilo.

“I try to not worry about it,” says Usilo, before admitting, “yes, it is very scary.”

But even without the threat of terrorists, life in Nigeria is fraught with disease and danger. Barely more than half of Nigeria’s roughly 174 million residents have potable drinking water or sanitary facilities. It remains the lone country in Africa to have yet to fully eradicate polio, and has a staggering infant mortality rate of more than 97 deaths per 1,000 births.

“Growing up with not a lot, it makes you appreciate life, family, friends, a lot more,” says Usilo.

A lifeline

Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

Despite the difficult living conditions (or perhaps because of them), athletics have become inseparable from Nigerian society.

“Playing a sport, or being athletic, is part of life,” says Akilo.

“I think it gives people kind of something they can concentrate on and forget about the bad things,” says Usilo.

Soccer remains king in the former British colony — akin to a religion — and both Akilo and Usilo dabbled in it as youth, but both quickly gravitated to basketball, which has also propelled a fair share of their countrymen on to significant success, none more so than NBA Hall of Fame selection Hakeem Olajuwon.

And for both Usilo, who would blossom into a ferociously athletic 6’4” wing, and Akilo, a developing forward, basketball would provide an opportunity to a new life. But for both, it would mean leaving their families behind.

“It was a very hard decision,” says Akilo of deciding to accept an offer to play basketball at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, “but my family wanted what was best for me.”

“My family pushed me to go do it,” says Usilo, who first attended a high school in North Carolina, before transferring to Nazareth.

Inseparable brothers

Despite growing up in the same city and traveling in the same basketball circles, Usilo and Akilo had only met once in Nigeria, briefly at a basketball camp, and didn’t get to know each other until they became teammates at Nazareth. Usilo arrived first and Akilo came a year later.

“Samson had been there for a while before me, so he really looked out for me and helped me adjust to everything,” says Akilo.

“It was really great to have Samson there, because having him around helped me feel less lonely, to miss home a little less,” says Usilo.

Usilo was the unquestioned star — a high-major level athlete who would drill pull-up 3-pointers on the fast break and throw down reverse dunks in traffic — but Akilo began to carve out a niche of his own, throwing ‘bows and crashing the boards in the low post. Usilo received dozens of Division I scholarship offers, but when Manhattan extended an offer to Akilo, who had also been offered by Long Island, it sealed the deal for both.

“I really liked the school and the coaches a lot, but the fact that Samson would be there with me definitely helped,” says Usilo.

A rough landing at Manhattan

Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

For both Usilo and Akilo, freshman year of college has been a challenge. While their time away from home has left both much more well-prepared for the independence that comes with college, life for their families in Nigeria been has rougher than at any previous point in their lives. Boko Haram’s attacks, coupled with record unemployment rates and a massive drop in the price of crude for an oil-dependent country, and impending elections already growing contentious, has left tensions high across the country.

“It’s definitely hard for them back home, and that makes it hard for me,” says Akilo.

On top of strife at home, the duo has experienced adversity for the first time on the court, their former safe haven and the eye of the storms that had swirled around much of their lives. Usilo suffered a season-ending torn quad before playing a single minute, and Akilo has stood on the outside looking in at the rotation.

“It has been a challenge,” says Usilo, “being hurt, not being able to play has been very, very hard — very frustrating.”

But both have found solace and support from one another.

“I can talk to Samson about anything, and we talk a lot and help each other a lot,” says Akilo.

“It would be a lot, a lot harder without him,” adds Usilo.

And in the aftermath of Manhattan’s 79-69 upset of top-seed Iona in the MAAC championship game, Akilo and Usilo found each other amidst the celebration to share an embrace as they punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

Looking back across the Atlantic and ahead to the future

Despite their freshman year struggles, both Akilo and Usilo say they are more committed now than ever before to making the most out of their time and earning their degrees at Manhattan so that they can help their respective families.

“When you face something hard, you realize how much you really want something, and I don’t just want — I need to be successful here,” says Usilo.

“I want to give my family a much better life, and for that I need to do great things here,” adds Akilo.

And according to both, whatever their future holds and wherever it may be, it will include the other.

“Samson and I are definitely friends for life, no matter what,” says Usilo.

“We’re family,” Akilo says. “Family is forever.”

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Peter Hooley sends Albany to the NCAA Tournament


Call it divine fate. Call it karma. Call it as good as it gets. Just don’t call it a storybook ending.

In a storybook ending, Peter Hooley’s mother, Sue would have been sitting courtside when Hooley drilled the game winner to send his Albany Great Danes past Stony Brook in the America East Championship Game and on to a third-straight NCAA Tournament.

But this was as close to perfect it gets in real life.

“”When you have angels watching you, you can do anything,” said Hooley, referencing his mother, who died from colon cancer on Jan. 30, after hitting the game-winning shot in the final seconds of Albany’s 51-50 win.

With 6.2 seconds remaining and the Great Danes trailing 50-49, Albany junior wing Ray Sanders drover the lane, throwing up a wild, contested runner that missed the mark badly, hitting off the very top of the backboard, before falling into the fray below.

In the mad dash scramble, the ball was tipped out towards the perimeter, bouncing once and landing right in the hands of Hooley, standing at the top of key, two and a half feet behind the arc with 3.6 seconds remaining.

For the first 39 minutes and 56.4 seconds, the top-seeded Great Danes, hosting the championship game on their SEFCU home court, had been thoroughly outplayed by third-seeded Stony Brook, and Hooley had struggled mightily, hitting just two of his first 12 shots from the floor.

It had nothing on the struggle Hooley and his family had gone through earlier in the year, when Sue’s health took a turn for the worse and the Great Danes’ star – who also drilled the championship game winner last season to knock off the Seawolves – left the team to head home to Australia for three weeks to be by his mother’s bedside during her final days.

Hooley missed eight games during that stretch, spending what he estimated as 16 hours a day by his mother’s side ever day for three weeks until she passed away, before returning to rejoin the Danes as they made their stretch run during the regular season.

After finishing 15-1 in conference play, Albany looked as if they would fall victim to the kind of upsets they had pulled off in each of the past two years, when they made the NCAA Tournament as a four-seed, winning the championship on the home courts of Vermont and Stony Brook, respectively.

The Great Danes were outshot from both the floor and behind the arc in what was a defensive quagmire on Saturday (36.2 percent to 31.1 percent and 30 percent to 10 percent, respectively), but that all went out the window when the ball bounced into Hooley’s hands and he let fly, finding nothing but the bottom of the next with less than two seconds remaining for the win.

“We were just resilient. We battled and battled. It’s the best moment of my life. After everything I’ve been through, this was for my family and my mom especially,” said Hooley, who knelt by the scorer’s table alone weeping after the game, before being surrounded by his teammates.

March Madness: The 2014-2015 America East basketball season in dunks

With a the NCAA Tournament dreams dashed for seven of the America East’s nine teams, and a day remaining before the March Madness showdown between bitter rivals Albany and Stony Brook for all the marbles, One-Bid Wonders decided to take a look back at the America East basketball season that was in dunks. Take a look and enjoy — all nine America East teams and quite a few players are represented.

Who was the conference’s best dunker? What was the best dunk of the season? Leave us a comment below.

America East men’s basketball Dunks of 2014-2015 from Samuel Perkins on Vimeo.

Lafayette punches ticket to the 2015 NCAA Tournament

Fifteen years. Sometimes it seems like an eye-blink. Other times it feels like an eternity.

The final buzzer echoed around Kirby Sports Center, the scoreboard read triple-zeros, and more than 2,000 Leopards fans crashed the court, joining Lafayette’s players in a wild celebration.

Somewhere amidst the madness of March, Lafayette head coach Fran O’Hanlon smiled, savoring the moment for a second. For 40 minutes of action, the Leopards had withstood every charge from defending Patriot League champion American for a 65-63 win. And now Lafayette was going to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history.

“It’s an awesome experience, to play at home, win at home, was absolutely fabulous,” said O’Hanlon after the game.

Now in his 20th year at the Leopards’ helm, O’Hanlon has led Lafayette to all three of the program’s Big Dances, but so much has changed over the years. O’Hanlon was 50, and in his fourth year as a head coach, when he led Lafayette to their first NCAA Tournament in 1999. A year later, during a 24-win season, he led them back, a run that was chronicled in the John Feinstein New York Times bestseller “The Last Amateurs.”

For a moment, everyone knew Lafayette basketball. And then the spotlight disappeared and the team fell back to the middle of the pack, finishing higher than fourth in the league standings just four times over the next 14 seasons.

Around the college basketball world, people quietly wondered if the game had passed the now 66-year-old O’Hanlon by.

The Leopards silenced them Wednesday night, rallying to reclaim the lead after a big Eagles run in the second half, and hanging on for the win.

“They’re the defending champions. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” O’Hanlon said after the game. “We rose to the challenge, hit some big shots, and pulled it out. I’m very proud of these guys and how hard they’ve worked to win this game.”

Lafayette was led by sophomore guard Nick Lindner, who scored 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including driving lay-up in traffic to push the lead to three with 38 seconds to go, while dishing out four assists to claim tournament MVP honors.

The Leopards shot championship game record 64.9 percent from the floor (24-of-37) and also knocked down 53.3 percent from behind the arc (8-of-15), while setting Patriot League Tournament records for field-goal percentage (60.1%, 86-for-143) and three-pointers made (30).

“I’m speechless. I love these guys, I love my team, it’s a great way to end my four years here,” said senior Dan Trist, who was held to an uncharacteristically quiet night, scoring six points to go with seven rebounds.

Lafayette trailed 15-12 with 13 minutes to play in the first half after a 3-pointer from American wing John Schoof, but an 11-0 run powered by Lindner’s daring drives and dishes, put the Leopards up 23-15. Six points from American forward Charlie Jones cur the lead back to two, but another 7-0 spurt from the Leopards opened the game back up, and Lafayette went into the half leading 34-25.

The Leopards controlled most of the opening eight minutes of the second half, with a floater from Seth Hinrichs pushing the lead to 48-36 at the 12 minute mark.

But the defending Patriot League champion Eagles were not going to go quietly, with 2014 Patriot League Tournament MVP Pee Wee Gardner powering an 9-2 run that all but erased the Leopards’ lead. A three by Lindner with the shot clock expiring gave Lafayette a moment of breathing room, but a tough shot in traffic by Gardner and an old-fashioned three-point play by Marko Vasic with 5:07 left ripped the lead back into American’s hands, 55-53.

“Well, it was very scary, we certainly didn’t make it easy,” said O’Hanlon after the game.

But the Leopards responded, immediately, with Hinrichs drilled a 3-pointer at the other end to reclaim the lead with 4:30 remaining and a huge 3-ball from reserve Zach Rufermade it a two possession game, 59-55, with two minutes left.

Gardner wasn’t done yet, cutting the lead to 61-60 on a huge 3-pointer of his own with 1:06 left, but Lindner responded with his breathtaking drive, kissing his lay-up off the glass with 38 seconds remaining, before icing the game with a pair of free-throws with 13 seconds left.

A 3-pointer at the buzzer from Gardner accounted for the final margin.

“We did what we’ve done all year: we came back from some deficits,” said Hinrichs of the squad, which at times sat atop the Patriot League standings looking like world beaters, but finished the regular season at just 9-9 in league play, good for fourth place in the standings.

But as the Leopards danced it up at center court, the trials and tribulations of the past season – and of the better part of the past decade and a half – were washed away by a sea of Lafayette fans.

Lafayette will find out their NCAA Tournament seeding and opening round opponent during “Selection Sunday” which begins at 6 p.m. ET on CBS.

Four McGlynn reportedly to leave Towson basketball

Almost as soon as Towson basketball’s season stopped – a 74-69 loss to Elon in the play-in game of the CAA tournament — world began to spread like wild fire that Tigers’ sharpshooter Four McGlynn was on the move.

As first reported by Alex Kline of The Recruit Scoop, and subsequently confirmed by several sources and reporters around the basketball stratosphere (not to mention retweeted by the Twitter account associated with the York Ballers AAU program run by McGlynn’s father), McGlynn, a red-shirt junior, will graduate in the spring and ask for his release to transfer elsewhere as a grad student.

This will be the second time in three calendar years that the York, Pa. Native and the Tigers leading scorer over the past season at 12 points per game, has transferred out of a program.

As a true freshman, McGlynn filled the role of deadeye sniper and instant offense off the bench for America East tournament champion Vermont, averaging 12 points per game while hitting 38 percent of his 3-pointers and just under 90 percent of his free-throws, to help lead the Catamounts to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and a “First Four” win over Lamar. Almost as soon as he returned home after the end of the school year, McGlynn stunned teammates by announcing he would transfer.

At the time of his release from Vermont, McGlynn cited homesickness and the distance away from his large, close family, and eventually committed to play for Pat Skerry at Towson.

After sitting out the 2012-2013 season due to the NCAA’s mandatory redshirt year for transfers, McGlynn came off the bench to average 9.2 points per game while hitting 40.8 percent of his 3-points and 91.3 percent of his free throws for a 25-11 squad that finished second in the CAA before advancing to the CIT tournament quarterfinals.

With the graduation of several impact upperclassmen, McGlynn was expected to shoulder more of a scoring load for the Tigers as a redshirt junior, and, despite moving between the starting lineup and the bench and back, paced the team at 12 points per game, while knocking down 37.4 percent of his 3-pointers and a career-best 91.7 percent from the charity stripe.

But the Tigers struggled and now, McGlynn, is apparently out the door.

Several analysts have already mentioned McGlynn as an attractive “one-and-done” graduate transfer (NCAA rules would allow him to play immediately as a graduate student), and his ability to fill it up from behind the arc would certainly make him a viable specialist for a school at a step up from the CAA level (maybe even more).

But the issue is whether that is a role that McGlynn would embrace. When McGlynn left Vermont, the murmur around the America East conference was that he was not happy about his playing time coming off the bench as a role player, and similar speculation followed him during much of his career at Towson.

As a one year transfer learning a new system, especially one with limited foot speed and run-and-jump athleticism, it’s hard to see McGlynn playing a larger role than a microwave player providing long range shooting off the bench.

If McGlynn is looking to go somewhere to win, and willing to embrace a supporting role, he’ll have a lot of choices. If he’s looking to go somewhere and be “the man”, he’s going to be left with very limited offers from lower-tier low-major programs.

March Madness: Sam Perkins and Ryan Restivo break down America East basketball

In anticipation of the America East championship and the start of March Madness, which tips off with top-seed Albany facing three-seed Stony Brook at 11 a.m. Saturday, OBW’s Sam Perkins linked up with Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo and the America East’s Jared Hager to take a look back a the season that was, before looking ahead to the championship game that will be.

The trio shared a great deal of laughs, as well as insider insight over the course of the night, with topics ranging from their overall impressions and biggest surprises during the regular season; thoughts on the change in the conference’s post season format, from a single-site tournament to a high-seed host playoff; the best game of the post season; and of course, detailed breakdowns and predictions of the big game itself.

Give it a watch and then flame away at Restivo.

New Hampshire basketball, Matt Miller, will write another chapter of remarkable story in CIT

Matt Miller
New Hampshire senior Matt Miller. Photo Credit: Steph Crandall

Despite a heartbreaking end to their quest for the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, New Hampshire basketball will continue its magical season for at least one more game, and have a chance to set a new school record for wins in the program’s first ever post season appearance.

On Wednesday afternoon the 19-win Wildcats announced that they had accepted an invitation to play in the 32-team CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), giving them a chance to reach the 20-win plateau for the first time in school history.

New Hampshire’s opponent has not yet been determined, as the entire CIT field will not be finalized until after the NCAA Tournament field is chosen on “selection Sunday” and the subsequent NIT tournament team’s are also chosen. However, the Wildcats know they will begin the single-elimination tournament on the road sometime between March 11 and March 15.

Arguably the biggest surprise in the entire America East Conference, after finishing the 2013-2014 season in last place at 4-12 in league play and 6-24 overall, head coach Bill Herrion completely reinvented the Wildcats and himself, running an offense based on dribble penetration from guards Jaleen Smith and Daniel Dion, low post scoring from forward Tanner Leissner and Jacoby Armstrong, and the unconscious outside shooting of Matt Miller, and fought their way to a 19-12 overall record and fourth place finish in league play at 11-5.

Their 19 total wins matched the program’s best mark, set 20 years ago during the 1994-1995 season. UNH also scored the program’s first home playoff win for the first time since 94-95, downing fifth-seed Hartford 67-63 in overtime before a raucous crowd in the America East quarterfinals on March 4.
Despite playing the entire post season without Leissner — the 2015 America East Rookie of the Year and the Wildcats’ top scorer and rebounder was lost due to a bad high-ankle sprain — New Hampshire gave top-seed Albany everything it could handle, falling 60-58 in the America East semifinals only after a last second 3-point attempt by Smith missed the mark.

Despite their loss to Albany, the Wildcats will enter the CIT having won 11 of their last 14. While the Wildcats reinvented themselves on offense, they got back to Herrion staples as the league’s top defense: running opposing shooters off the perimeter, attacking the class with reckless abandon and flying across the floor for loose balls. New Hampshire held opponents to 60.9 points per game, and currently ranks eighth in the nation in defenisive rebounds (27.3 per game), and 25th nationally in 3-point field goal percent defense (30.5).

While the CIT will give the Wildcats a chance to set program records, it will also give Miller at least one more game in his college career.

One of the best — but potentially most bittersweet – stories in all of college basketball, Miller began his career at Division II Seton Hill after being passed over by every team in Division I basketball, including UNH. After shooting lights out for two years, Miller was able to earn a scholarship and transfer up to UNH, fulfilling his lifelong dream of Division I ball.

But after sitting out during the 2012-2013 season as a transfer, Miller tore his ACL before playing a single minute last season. After a grueling year of rehab, he finally set foot on a Division I court, and promptly set it on fire, finishing the season hitting 49.2 percent of his 3-pointers, reportedly the highest single-season mark in America East Conference history.

After missing two years – one as a transfer and one due to injury – Miller is applying for a sixth year of eligibility with the NCAA – something one mid-major coach referred to as “as hard as hitting the lottery” for small conference players. With no guarantee of another year of eligibility, the CIT could be the final chapter of Miller’s remarkable but heartbreakingly short Division I story.