Given an opportunity, Yinka Olurunnife seized it.
Seize is the operative word.
The 6-foot senior heads into the Western Athletic Conference women’s basketball tournament as the newly crowned all-time leading rebounder in Idaho and league history.
“Once I figured I had the opportunity then I just went after it,” she said. “I never thought it would happen coming into college.”
Rebounding wasn’t always her forte, which is hard to fathom now that she has 1,030.
“Not until I got to college,” she said. “I rebounded in high school but it was just part of the game. Once I got to college, sophomore year was when I kind of realized I’m good at this. I kind of made it an emphasis. Before then it was just part of the game.”
Passing former UI great Allie Nieman (1,005) two weeks ago and Louisiana Tech’s Shanavia Dowdells (1,025) last weekend, in Olurunnife’s mind, was simple.
“It’s the commitment,” she said. “If you really commit yourself to anything, I know it sounds corny, you can really accomplish anything. It’s my commitment to want to reach that goal.”
Her single-minded pursuit of errant shots is far different than her journey to Moscow, Idaho.
Born in Nigeria, her family moved to Australia when she was 5 and then on to Ontario when she was a teenager. That nomadic life isn’t surprising considering her father also lived in England, Germany and China, though exactly why he kept moving baffled his daughter.
Fortunately she had sports.
“When I was growing up, I was one of the tallest in my class,” she said. “I think I stopped growing when I was 14, so I was a really tall 14-year old.”
She started playing at 9, but nothing serious.
“I remember my parents tricked us, told us we were going on vacation to Canada and we have to get passports,” she said, a belief she and her three sisters kept until a month before the move in December 2003. “I was just in hysterics.”
Of course she had the perfect way to fit in.
“I didn’t know anyone so I thought the best thing was to join a team to create some sort of social group,” she said. “I thought I was good at basketball but when I joined everybody said I was really good and said I should try out for the provincial team.”
After making Team Ontario she attended the National Elite Development Academy. The senior national team coach inspired her with the possibility of a scholarship.
In fact she committed to a school but a week before her visit that scholarship went to a 6-4 center.
“They said I could walk on, blah, blah, blah,” she said. “I wasn’t having it.”
Allison O’Neill, the senior national coach who played and coached at Oregon, among other stops, put Olorunnife in contact with Idaho for a visit.
“I really liked the team and the players,” she said. “In Australia we lived in a really small town, maybe size of Moscow, outside of Melbourne. Since I moved around a lot, it was easy for me to adjust.”
But it has been give-and-take having most recently lived in Windsor, Ontario.
“I miss the opportunity just to do anything. If you’re bored there’s always something to do,” she said. “If you’ve been here two days you’ve done everything there is to do. You have to drive to Spokane to find more stuff. … I miss the privacy. It feels like here everyone knows each other. Nothing is new.
“The upside is I like that everyone is on the same page. We don’t get a lot of people at our games but walking around people come up to you. People are willing to help you out even if they don’t know you.”
And Olorunnife has given people plenty to know her for.
“Right now I don’t think I’m understanding how big of a deal it is. Once I graduate and look back, I’m going to go, ‘Wow, that’s my record,’ ” said the food and nutrition major, who wants to play overseas. “Now I want to win, I’m doing it for the team. When I can dwell on college, this is one thing that will stand out.”
The Vandals swept Boise State for the first time in 14 seasons and now have to beat the Broncos a third time. Fifth-seeded Idaho (14-14) and Boise State (12-18) square off at 6 tonight in the first game of the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas. The winner faces fourth-seeded Nevada (20-9) on Thursday.
In the Pac-10 Tournament, which starts in the Galen Center and moves to the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Friday, Washington State and Washington play tonight. The eighth-seeded Cougars (8-22) play No. 5 USC (18-11) at 5 and the No. 7 Huskies (11-16) meet No. 6 California (15-14) at 7:15.
Sixth-seeded Eastern Washington (12-17) opens the Big Sky tournament in Portland on Thursday against No. 3 Montana State (17-13) at 4:35, with No. 4 Montana (15-14) facing No. 5 Idaho State (18-11) in the second game. If the Eagles beat the Bobcats for the first time in three tries they’ll face league-champion Portland State (19-10) on Friday.
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