Four seconds remained on the game clock. That’s how long the UCSB women’s basketball team had to go the length of the floor and score if it wanted to extend its season.
The ball ended up in the hands of the Gauchos’ quickest player, Onome Jemerigbe.
The freshman point guard raced down the court, throwing up the runner at the right elbow. The shot bounced off the back of the iron, and Santa Barbara fell to UC Davis 58-57.
Literally, the missed shot by Jemerigbe meant an end to UCSB’s season. For Head Coach Carlene Mitchell, however, it metaphorically meant something more, something positive for the Gauchos.
On a team dominated by seniors, it showed the reins of the team being passed to Jemerigbe.
“I kind of liked at the end of the year meeting [talking to her about how] even though we didn’t call the last play to have the ball in her hands in our last game against Davis, she wanted it,” Mitchell said. “That tells me a lot about her drive, and it’s only going to fuel her to work harder.”
Named to the Big West All-Freshman team, Jemerigbe played well beyond her years this season. She quickly became a staple in Santa Barbara’s starting lineup, playing the most minutes behind the three seniors.
In fact, after starting 26 of UCSB’s 30 games, Jemerigbe became the first freshman to start more than 20 games since La Shay Fears in 2005-06 and just the fourth in the past 14 years, joining elite company in Kristen Mann and Mia Fischer, as well as Fears.
“I remember when we told her we were going to start her. I go, ‘Are you nervous?’ And I can remember her looking at me and she was like, ‘Yeah. I’m really nervous.’” Mitchell said. “But she never looked back after that. She’s so competitive, she wants to win and she knows how to win.”
Jemerigbe made her biggest impact on the defensive end. Although listed at just 5’5’’, Jemerigbe used her speed and quickness to hassle opponents on all 4,700 square feet of the court, ranking second on the team in steals at 1.1 per game.
On the offensive end, Jemerigbe gave the Gauchos something it hasn’t seen in many years: a true point guard. With her pass first, shoot second mentality, Jemerigbe registered 67 assists this season, which ranks eighth all-time amongst UCSB freshmen.
“She exceeded what I knew she had ability-wise,” Mitchell said. “We knew the natural God-given ability, but her understanding of the game and competitive spirit were far greater than I anticipated. I think she had an outstanding freshman year.”
While Jemerigbe’s ability to adapt to college basketball could easily be attributed to her time at UCSB, Mitchell acknowledged other sources for the freshman’s transition, including one much closer to home.
The Stockton, California native is the youngest of four children, all of whom are involved in sports. One family member in particular has made the biggest influence on Jemerigbe, her older sister Afure.
“[Afure] knows the whole DI, student-athlete life, so she’s my biggest role model,” Jemerigbe said. “She gives me so much advice. It’s cool having somebody older who’s already been through it and can guide me through it. Even though she’s not here, I can still talk to her over the phone and text. She’s always giving me advice and encouraging me.”
Afure Jemerigbe is currently a senior at Berkeley and a star on Cal’s women’s basketball team. Playing a shooting guard, Afure started all 32 games for the Golden Bears, serving as one of the team’s biggest three-point threats. She averaged 12.1 points per game this season.
“[Onome’s] one of those that watches and evaluates. I think she was able to watch Afure,” Mitchell said. “I think any time you have an example of older siblings or family members that have been successful at the college level and you’ve seen their ups and downs and what they had to go through, it gave her a head start on the mindset she needed to play at this level.”
With a three-year age difference, the Jemerigbe sisters played together at St. Mary’s High School in the 2009-10 season, which only aided the young Jemerigbe.
“It was so much fun,” Jemerigbe said. “She’s like my best friend, so it was no drama; it was all fun. She would encourage me when I got on the court and tell me what I needed to work on.”
Now, Jemerigbe will try to take a page out of her older sister’s book on the offensive end. Seniors Nicole Nesbit, Melissa Zornig and Destini Mason accounted for 64.3 percent of the Gauchos’ scoring this season.
As a natural distributor, Jemerigbe averaged just 5.8 points this year, although she proved she could produce at the rim for herself too, scoring in double figures in five games. In the next few years, Mitchell will ask for more.
“Nic, Mel and Destini aren’t going to be there next year, so I have to pick it up a lot more that they’re gone,” Jemerigbe said. “I need to be more of a leader. That’s what we lack the most right now since they were our leading scorers.”
And with all three seniors playing the guard position, Jemerigbe will also become the guard with the most experience and be asked to lead her team. Even as a freshman, Jemerigbe showed she could lead by example, but now, her team will look for its point guard to be the floor general.
“With a year under her belt, I think she had already led by example in her work ethic and competitive spirit, but now she’ll add that element of being a little more vocal,” Mitchell said. “She’s a starter and an all-freshman team player and she earned that right by working hard every day. Being a starter, she knows the expectations and the returners will hopefully follow her lead and continue to get better every day. As long as O continues to work, we’ll keep the ball in her hands.”
So next year, don’t be surprised if Mitchell designs the last-second play for Jemerigbe. Her point guard will be ready.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of April 9th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.