By Jenna Galloway
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Nneka Enemkpali chose basketball.
“In my opinion, I was better at volleyball and track than I was at basketball in high school but I wanted to challenge myself to excel in playing Division I basketball,” said Enemkpali. “Ultimately I chose basketball over volleyball and track because I liked how aggressive it is and how it challenges me.”
Midway through her junior season with the Longhorns, the 6-foot-1 Pflugerville, Texas native has lived up to her own challenge of excelling on the biggest stage by leading the Big 12 in rebounds (9.5 rpg) and leading her team in points (13.4 ppg).
In high school, Enemkpali was highly recruited in three sports -- basketball, track and volleyball. She was named to numerous all-state teams in volleyball and was a district-champion sprinter at the 5A level.
By the time Enemkpali was a senior at Pflugerville High School in 2011, she was the 32nd-ranked basketball prospect in the country by ESPN.com, as well as an honorable mention All-American by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
The athletic Texan’s experience as a multi-sport athlete from a young age contributed to her success on the collegiate basketball floor. Enemkpali credits track for her a killer-instinct and accountability for her effort, while volleyball helped her understand her role within the confines of a team.
“I know my role, I know what I’m expected to give, and I know what my team and my coaches expect out of me,” said Enemkpali. “I’m an energy player. I’m expected to be a consistent player for the team, as far as energy, rebounding and offensively as well.”
The Big 12 has taken notice of her energy, especially those who have been exposed to her rebounding prowess.
“I’ll tell you what, she played just as hard as anyone I’ve seen in the Big 12. She was all over the place,” West Virginia head coach Mike Carey said after Enemkpali exploded for a Big 12 Conference-high 21 rebounds and 15 points against the Mountaineers.
“She’s a great player, probably one of the best players I’ve had to guard this year. She’s very aggressive, and I knew coming into the game that she was going to be aggressive,” said Baylor’s Nina Davis after Enemkpali scored 19 points with 15 rebounds against the Lady Bears.
Enemkpali’s aggressive and energy-laden play is expected, but it’s also something that she’s had to work to reign in in order to avoid foul trouble. The team leader in rebounding and scoring has fouled out of five games this season, three of which the Longhorns have lost (against No. 6/5 Stanford Nov. 23, at No. 3/3 Tennessee Dec. 8 and at TCU Jan. 19).
“We all know Nneka understands her importance to our team,” said Texas head coach Karen Aston. “She has to deal at times with how to play through the game with the motor and intensity she has without fouling. When she’s not in foul trouble and is able to let herself go and play aggressively, that is when she is at her best.”
Her best, which was fully illustrated by her 21 rebound, 15 point performance against No. 18/21 West Virginia on Jan. 25 which earned her Big 12 Player of the Week honors, has no doubt contributed to Texas’ momentum this season. The Longhorns sit at 14-7 overall and 5-4 in conference play, good for fourth place. Although Enemkpali acknowledges that her consistency has contributed to Texas’ successes this season, she credits her team’s growth for the turnaround of the program.
“All of my teammates bring something different to the table,” said Enemkpali. “At the post, I don’t really think it’s much different than last season. The difference between this year and last year is that we have perimeter players who are able to knock down open shots and relieve some pressure on the inside game.”
For Enemkpali though, it all comes back to things she can control: energy and effort.
“I just try to go in and play with effort, because the ball is not always going to go in the hole,” said Enemkpali. “I try to channel that energy and just be an energy-giver and always just do what I know I can do.”
Which is, you guessed it, rebounding.