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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Four on the floor

Ibekwe siblings play basketball, with Maryland's Ekene in NCAA tournament

March 15, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. — This morning in Southern California, the members of the tight-knit Ibekwe family will gather at their home in Carson if they can, or pause wherever they are.

Ekene Ibekwe, the second of four basketball-playing siblings, is in the NCAA tournament here with Maryland in a game that starts shortly after 9 a.m. in California, and they all want to watch on the family's satellite TV.

The four Ibekwes -- born in Los Angeles to Nigerian parents -- are one player short of a Division-I starting five.

Onye, a 6-foot-8-inch forward, played at Long Beach State, finishing his career last season.

Ekene, 6-9, is a Maryland senior who made the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-defensive team after leading the league in blocked shots.

Chinyere, nicknamed "Rey Rey," is a 6-4 sophomore at UCLA who played in the NCAA women's tournament last season and led the Bruins in rebounds this season.

And Ify, a 6-2 Harbor City Narbonne High senior, is headed for Arizona or Oregon State on a women's basketball scholarship next fall.

Little wonder that their father, Austin Ibekwe, an accountant for Los Angeles County, stays busy just trying to keep up with all their games.

The children's height comes partly from his wife's side. Austin Ibekwe is 5-10, although he has taller relatives. His wife, Agatha, a nurse, is 5-11, and had a grandfather who was 7-2.

Austin and Agatha Ibekwe came to the United States more than two decades ago, but the soccer that Austin grew up playing and the track Agatha once competed in were soon exchanged by their children for basketball.

"We started out playing every sport," Ekene said before Maryland practiced for its first-round Midwest Regional game today against Davidson.

"But just growing up, watching basketball on TV, watching the Lakers, I liked Magic Johnson. And then I grew," he said.

Their father would take the youngsters to parks all around town and the children would shoot and practice.

"Growing up, we didn't always play together, just because our ages are so different," Chinyere said, thinking especially of her younger sister.

"My brothers couldn't just be dunking on her."

Not that Ekene would hold back from swatting her shot if given the opportunity, Ify said.

"Oh he would block it, man, he would block it," she said. "There's no question."

The chance for any of them to play on the same team seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Onye, now 23, played at Crenshaw High, then started his career at Oklahoma State before transferring to Long Beach, where he averaged four points and four rebounds last season. Since then, he has tried to make the transition from college basketball player to NFL tight end that Antonio Gates made for the San Diego Chargers, and was in training camp with the San Francisco 49ers before being waived in August. He later suffered a major knee injury playing for the American Basketball Assn.'s Hollywood Fame, but plans to try NFL Europe or basketball again after rehabilitating.

Ekene played at Carson High before choosing Maryland, where one of his teammates is former Santa Ana Mater Dei standout D.J. Strawberry, the leading scorer for the 24-8 Terrapins at 15.2 points a game. Ekene averages 10.5 points, a team-leading 7.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots.

"I wanted to come to a school in the ACC, because it's the toughest conference in the country," he said.

Chinyere played for the girls' team at Carson, then signed with UCLA.

And Ify chose Narbonne partly because of the reputation of the girls' program. She and Chinyere played on travel teams together and had dreams of playing together at UCLA, but those ended when the Bruins stopped recruiting Ify.

"That's their loss," Chinyere said.

Ify said she will remember it when she's wearing the uniform of another Pacific 10 Conference school.

"I know I'll be so hyped when I play them," she said.

Ekene's choice to play on the other side of the country was an adjustment for the family.

"It gets hard," Chinyere said. "We talk on the Sidekick or call each other. Even one Christmas he didn't get to come home. That was hard for all of us.

"But they're always on TV."

Ekene has been willing to go any distance for basketball. The last two summers, he has taken advantage of his Nigerian heritage to play for the national team, training in Nigeria before competing in the Africa Championship in Algeria two years ago.

Last summer, he played for Nigeria in the FIBA World Championship in Japan, and ended up matched up against Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks in a game against Germany.

Ibekwe held his own, finishing with 22 points and 10 rebounds and the chance to say he blocked Nowitzki.

"I probably blocked him twice," Ekene said. "It meant a whole lot playing for my country, playing up against some of the toughest competition in the world. It felt good to know you could go out and play with guys like that."

His parents are proud, but they are most proud, Austin Ibekwe said, that their son will earn his degree on time in May.

"When they were growing up, we stressed academics," he said. "I made it crystal clear if they don't do that, they don't play. They did well and we allowed them to play."

That brings up one question.

Ify, a high school senior, might not get to watch at home with the rest of the family this morning.

"She has to go to school," her father said.

robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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