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Women’s basketball: Ajayi scoring in bunches for Averett

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

DANVILLE, Va. — Averett University basketball player Amani Ajayi is one of those rarities who is scoring more in college than she did in high school.

In two games in Raleigh over the weekend, the 5-foot-8 junior poured in 40 points and pulled down 19 rebounds in romps against William Peace and Meredith. She scored a career-best 24 points on Saturday. Her career high at East Rowan High was a 17-point effort against Salisbury early in her junior season.

Ajayi is averaging 13.6 rebounds and 7.4 rebounds for the Averett Cougars, who are 10-7 overall and 7-2 in the USA South Athletic Conference.

“I’ve always tried to figure out what it is that my team needs from me,” Ajayi said. “Whatever that role is, I’m OK with it. Right now, I need to be one of our scorers.”

In her last two high school seasons at East (2013-14 and 2014-15), she played on two of the more successful teams in school history. East was 44-8 those two seasons and 28-4 in South Piedmont Conference play. Ajayi’s teammates her junior season included Karleigh Wike (Richmond), Kelli Fisher (UNC Asheville) and guards Shenell Pharr, Shenique Pharr, Lauren Thomas and Jocelyn Lowe. Ajayi’s senior season, East subtracted Wike and Thomas but added a healthy Kaleigh Troutman.

In other words, Ajayi didn’t have to score in high school. So she focused on defense, passing and rebounding. Danielle Porter, who coached the Mustangs then, frequently pointed out that Ajayi was the glue to those teams, no matter what the scorebook said. When East won the 2014 Christmas tournament, ending a 13-year drought, Ajayi was a huge part of it. Down the stretch of a frantic 62-56 win against North Rowan in the championship game, Ajayi got every tough rebound.

East was still talented the season after Ajayi graduated, but the Mustangs went 12-14, so you can make a case that she was more instrumental in East’s success than anyone realized.

Ajayi’s averages her senior year weren’t earth-shaking — 7.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists — but Averett coach Liz Hickey had seen enough to give her a chance. Division III Averett doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, but Ajayi was a stellar student and received substantial academic money from the school in Danville, Va.

“No one ever told me I was crazy for thinking I could play basketball in college,” Ajayi said with a laugh. “I did know it would be tougher, but I believed I could play.”

She barely played her freshman season at Averett. She played in seven games and had more turnovers (10) than points (9). That was the critical juncture for her. It would’ve been easy to quit and concentrate on her studies. Instead, she made up her mind to get better.

“I didn’t get discouraged, I really didn’t,” Ajayi said. “I loved the school, loved my classes, and that helped me get through that freshman year  even when basketball wasn’t going so well. I decided I just had to work harder if I was going to earn playing time.”

The jump between her freshman and sophomore seasons was significant. Coach Hickey saw that Ajayi was bringing an energy boost to the team whenever she played, and Hickey wanted her team to play faster. Ajayi became the first Cougar off the bench early in her sophomore season. When she scored 17 points in 18 minutes against Salem, it was breakthrough performance.

By the middle of that sophomore season, she was starting. Averett went 18-9. Ajayi averaged 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing 17 minutes per night.

Now, as a junior, Ajayi is one of the three primary scorers for Averett, along with 5-9 Brooke Carthon and 5-10 Samm Chandler, the leading scorer in school history. Hickey plays five women who are 5-10 or smaller. It’s a pressing, uptempo style well-suited for the aggressive Ajayi, who is playing 26 minutes per game.

“We lost a scorer (Frida Lundquist) from last year, so I’ve needed to shoot more,” Ajayi said. “I started last year, but I wasn’t really in a scoring role.”

Ajayi is only 2-for-11 on 3-pointers this season. Her points are coming off transition or in the paint, and she’s a 70-percent free-throw shooter.

“I’m actually playing in the post quite a bit, even though I’m 5-8,” Ajayi said. “I’ve learned a lot about playing against taller people by practicing with our coaching staff.”

Coach Hickey was a 6-3 standout on a University of Mary Washington team that team made it to the Division III Final Four. Ajayi also had to learn some tricks to get shots off against the 6-4 Wike and 6-3 Fisher in East Rowan practices.

“It has been a good feeling to do better this year,” Ajayi said. “But I’m a long way from being satisfied. The goal is to get a ring. I won’t be happy until we can accomplish that.”

As far as academics, Ajayi is a bio-med major. That means demanding classes. Mastering subjects such as immunology, microbiology, organic chemistry and pathology is more challenging than making a 15-footer in traffic.

“The academic side, getting a degree, that’s still the main reason that I’m here,” Ajayi said. “I like being at a small school. My professors know my name and I know a lot of students by name.”

Sounds a lot like high school — except she’s scoring twice as much.

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