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MERIDIAN - Naya Ojukwu stood at midcourt to jump for the opening tip.

The Mountain View High School senior post had done so numerous times. But this time it was different. It was senior night Jan. 27 - just not the one she envisioned with a leg brace protecting her reconstructed knee. 

It was supposed to be the grand farewell for one of the best basketball players Idaho has ever seen. However, while the University of Utah signee didn’t exactly get her swan song. It didn’t take away from one storied career. 

"She’s the best player to ever come out of the state of Idaho," said Steve Kleese, the director of her club program - the Northwest Blazers.

Except Ojukwu wasn’t a natural. 

When she first started in youth basketball, she didn’t play much - even on her father’s own team. But when they moved cross country from Tampa Bay in the fifth grade, that all changed. 

Ojukwu joined "Hoop Dreams," a Boise-area club shortly after she arrived. It was there that she met coach Leon Williams.

"She’s still a mess," Williams joked. "But the obvious was there: size and freakishly athletic. So it was about challenging her to open up her game in other ways. I think she hadn’t been challenged before that point. Initially, she was hesitant to do it. But the more she accepted it and just worked on her game, the more she started to see that she needed it.”

Two years later, Ojukwu was doing things like scoring 42 of 47 points at a national tournament in California. It got the attention of others, including longtime Mountain View girls basketball coach Connie Skogrand, who was just coming off of a pair of Class 5A titles.

Ojukwu played for her junior varsity summer basketball team - as a seventh grader. 

So it came as no surprise when she cracked the starting lineup for the renowned program - the same one where Las Vegas Aces’ Destiny Slocum had cut her teeth in - during her ninth-grade year. But Ojukwu did much more than that. 

After scoring 22 points in her first varsity game, she averaged 14.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game to become the first ninth grader in several years to make the 5A all-state team.

"Honestly, I had not had a kid who could jump and grab a ball the way she did," Skogrand said. "I’ve never had a kid be able to do the things she can do inside." 

It all nearly resulted in the first perfect season at the 5A level in a decade. But the Mavericks suffered a stunning 51-47 loss to Eagle - the same team they had beaten three times before by more than 10 points per game, in the finals.

It was a defeat that shaped Ojukwu. 

"It would be really cool to have three rings right now and that’s a really cool story for sure, but I think I needed that," Ojukwu said. "I’ll never forget that moment. To not feel what I felt that day, motivates me every game."

Which is why she didn’t let Mountain View falter again in each of the next two years. 

With an injury to Trinity Slocum (Hawaii) and Laila Saenz (Westmont) in foul trouble, Ojukwu erased multiple deficits with a game-high double-double of 23 points and 11 rebounds in a 55-49 win over Timberline in the 2020 championship game. She took over again in last year’s title game with Mountain View down 16 points in the first half. Ojukwu finished with 32 points and 16 rebounds in a 62-55 come-from-behind win over Thunder Ridge for back-to-back championships.

Her third consecutive double-double of that tournament led to Ojukwu breaking Destiny Slocum’s scoring record (85) with 87 points over the three-day period and tying the record for the most total field goals (33).

"I remember going to Destiny’s games and thinking, 'This girl is amazing. She’s going to go so far.' I looked up to her so much and wanted to be just like her," Ojukwu said. "So to even have my name next to hers was a huge accomplishment for me."

Ojukwu was making a name for herself on the national scene as well.

Upon joining the Northwest Blazers, which features the best players from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington and has 12 national titles, sophomore year, she played on both the Adidas and Under Armour circuits against the likes of UConn’s Azzi Fudd, who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. The Huskies also showed interest in Ojukwu, whose offers ranged from Duke to reigning national runner-up Arizona.

Kleese says that Ojukwu is already just as good as New York Liberty’s Michaela Onyenwere, who was just named the WNBA’s rookie of the year. Onyenwere played for Kleese on the national team in Italy.

"She’s better than anybody I’ve ever had as far as a post player," Kleese said. "She has a want that’s unlike any I’ve ever seen. Nobody plays harder than Naya. Nobody."

It’s not just in basketball.

She was also a four-year varsity starter and a multiple-time all-state volleyball player. Ojukwu anchored the Mavericks to consecutive state appearances her final two seasons after the school's prolonged absence.

Ojukwu, who didn’t even start playing until ninth grade year, also had several NCAA Division I volleyball schools after her, such as Gonzaga.

"She kind of slipped through the cracks a little bit as far as volleyball to the outside world," Mountain View volleyball coach Ryan Hoffman said. "Everybody saw her as this basketball star, and coming from a program that had the lineage of players like Destiny and (Darian) White, it was completely understandable. It also didn’t help that the volleyball program wasn’t anything to write home about. But everyone knew in the volleyball world that she was a powerful stud. So it was nice to put her back on that map."

So against the advice of others, Ojukwu opened her recruitment for basketball and volleyball - which prompted some schools to drop their offers entirely.

"I’m one of the people," Williams said. "I remember her looking me dead in the eyes like, 'Watch, I’m going to prove you wrong.'"

She did by signing her national letter at Utah for basketball and volleyball, which was ranked in the top 10 this past season.

"If you try to count Naya out, that’s the last thing you want to try to do," Williams said. "That’s what makes her special."

While Ojukwu had nothing else to prove, there was still one question eating away in the back of her mind: Could she carry a team?

From White (Montana State) to Trinity Slocm (Hawaii), Ojukwu had always been surrounded by college-bound and all-league players. But not this season. The Mavericks had eight new players, including three ninth graders.

"She just took them under her wing," Skogrand said. "She pretty much just said, ‘I’ll take care of you. Just throw the ball up and I’ll go get it.’ But it was much more than that. It was giving them guidance on how to play at the varsity level. Any time kids are new to the varsity level, they’re looking for those veterans to help them out, and she was it. But she was right there for them."

Even after injuring her knee in just the third game of the season against Borah on Nov. 20.

Mountain View was up big late in the fourth quarter when Skogrand called a timeout to sit her star player. But Ojukwu pleaded to stay in, and Skogrand reluctantly agreed. On the next play, Ojukwu blocked a shot from Jayden McNeal, who is signed to Eastern Washington University. But McNeal landed on Ojukwu’s right knee coming down. Ojukwu fell on the floor and smacked the hardwood in agony.

Tests revealed she had completely torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Ojukwu was so devastated that she almost couldn’t bring herself to attend the team’s next game at Capital three days later.

"I walked in and I almost immediately walked back out," Ojukwu said. "I started tearing up. It was really hard to be there without actually being there on the court because that’s all I had ever known."

But from losing 10 of 12 games to senior night, Ojukwu was there through it all this season.

Senior night did see Ojukwu put on the green-and-blue uniform, and hear her name called as part of the Mavericks' starting lineup one final time.

Back at center court, tears rolled down her face as Centennial allowed her to win one final tip. She received the pass before purposely rolling the ball out of bounds to a standing ovation from both sides. 

Ojukwu, a three-time all-state selection, a three-time state finalist, a three-time district champion, a two-time state champion, a Gatorade player of the year award recipient and a multiple time program and state record holder who only lost five games throughout the course of her entire high school career, got her celebration after all.

"Not getting my last season was a hard pill to swallow. But younger me would be very proud of where I am today. I accomplished all the things I aspired to do as a high school athlete," Ojukwu said. "Those were the best years of my life. I met all of the best people I know right there. As I look back on this, I still can’t believe what I did. I have no regrets."

(Featured file photos by Loren Orr Photography)