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New York Times
25 Mar 2023

NextImg:The South Carolina Player Taking Basketball to Girls in West Africa

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the first two rounds of the women’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, it became clear why Dawn Staley calls Laeticia Amihere the most versatile player she has ever coached at South Carolina.

A lithe, 6-foot-4-inch reserve forward, Amihere, 21, can play and defend all five positions on the court. Against Norfolk State and South Florida in the opening rounds, she shadowed point guards above the 3-point line, guarded forwards on the wing, led the fast break and slashed into the lane for jumpers and follow shots. At one point, she emphatically swatted a shot at one end of the floor and sprinted with the elegant stride of an 400-meter runner for a layup on the other end.

“It’s not like there’s a drop-off no matter what position that she plays,” Staley said. “I’ve never coached anybody that comes with that much determination. Put her anywhere.”

Amihere’s basketball career, beset early by knee injuries sustained in high school outside of Toronto and later by family bereavement, has flourished of late: She was a member of Canada’s Olympic team at the 2021 Tokyo Games and of the 2022 national championship team at South Carolina. She has been an activist for equal treatment of female players by the N.C.A.A. And she is the founder of a nonprofit designed to spread the sport to underserved youth in Canada and in West Africa, from which her parents emigrated. A senior, she is pursuing a master’s degree in sport and entertainment management.

On Saturday, top-ranked South Carolina (34-0) continues its heavily favored march toward a second consecutive national championship. It will face U.C.L.A. (27-9) in a regional semifinal in Greenville, S.C., which is effectively a second home for the Gamecocks.

In early March, when South Carolina won the Southeastern Conference tournament in Greenville, forward Aliyah Boston, the reigning national player of the year, was named the most valuable player. But she graciously gave her trophy to Amihere, who delivered 37 points and 13 rebounds in the team’s three SEC tournament games.

“The entire tournament she was dominating,” Boston said. “I felt she deserved to be recognized.”

Aliyah Boston gave her SEC tournament trophy as most valuable player to Amihere.Credit...Mic Smith/FR2 AP, via Associated Press

Early this season, South Carolina faced U.C.L.A. at home in Columbia. The game remained tied after three quarters before the Gamecocks held the Bruins to three field goals in the final 10 minutes and pulled away to win, 73-64. It was emblematic of South Carolina’s familiar relentlessness, smothering defense and refusal to panic.

Particularly imposing is the size, agility and depth of its front line. There often appears to be little decline when the starters — Boston, who is 6-foot-5, and Victaria Saxton, who is 6-foot-2 — are given breathers by the 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, a mobile scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, and by Amihere, who plays with graceful efficiency.

Amihere shoehorned 11 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks into 16-plus minutes against Norfolk State, and 10 points, 6 rebounds and 1 block into 15-plus minutes against South Florida.

In the first and second rounds, South Carolina’s bench outscored its opponents’ reserves by a combined 71-8.

“They come at you in waves,” South Florida Coach Jose Fernandez said.

A native of Mississauga, Ontario, which neighbors Toronto, Amihere played soccer and ran track as a young girl, which helped her footwork and agility, but she did not play basketball until the sixth or seventh grade. Tall and gangly, she said she felt socially awkward. She grew tired of being asked whether she played basketball and took up the sport just to be able to say yes.

“I was kind of embarrassed being tall,” Amihere said. “But when I started playing basketball, I came into my body. There weren’t a lot of tall women around me before that. It gave me that confidence.”

Still only 14, she became the leading rebounder and shot-blocker at the 2016 under-17 world championships. At 15, she was credited as the first Canadian woman to dunk during a game. At the Tokyo Olympics, Amihere hoped to face the United States and Staley, its coach, but Canada did not reach the knockout rounds. Until then, Amihere said with a laugh, Staley kept messaging her, saying, “I’m cheering for you until we play each other.”

Her college choice was made, in part, in 2017, while Amihere watched Kia Nurse, a fellow Canadian, play for Connecticut in the Final Four as Mississippi State ended the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak and scuttled any chance they’d win a fifth consecutive national title. Two days later, South Carolina defeated Mississippi State and cut down the nets with its first championship.

Amihere wanted to play for a team that could beat UConn, and did in the 2022 national title game.

“A lot of people were thinking the same thing, and we all came to South Carolina,” Amihere said. “Now everybody wants to beat South Carolina. We’re actually more excited this go-around, but it’s harder to win twice in a row. Everybody’s gunning for you.”

Amihere tallied 11 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks against Norfolk State in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.Credit...Sean Rayford/Associated Press

After the N.C.A.A.’s discriminatory treatment of female basketball players was exposed during the 2021 tournaments, Amihere, at Staley’s urging, used a student advisory committee to advocate such gender-equity upgrades as having the same number of women’s teams in the field — 68 — as in the men’s bracket.

Last summer, Amihere traveled to the Ivory Coast, the home country of her mother, Georgette, to conduct basketball clinics for girls. Her work there was for a nonprofit she founded called Back to the Motherland. The challenge, Amihere said, is overcoming cultural barriers and “just really trying to expose to them that you can be more than a traditional woman who cooks and cleans.”

She plans to continue her nonprofit work while playing professionally, to pay forward the help others gave her in high school: A coach who paid her fees to play on a travel team. Her aunt and godmother, Olga Lambert, who drove her to basketball practice regularly, an hour or more each way, while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Lambert died in October 2022 at age 62. (An older brother, Kofi, died last August at age 30.)

When she considered giving up basketball after two serious knee injuries in high school, Amihere said, her aunt’s encouragement and brave struggle inspired her to keep playing. Now she wears pink sneakers in her aunt’s honor, marked with “Tante Olga” and “Superwoman.”

“She’s always been my No. 1 motivation,” Amihere said. “I can’t let up because of that.”