Ugoalah announces arrival with all-star nod

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 – Submitted by Megan Stewart, Vancouver Courier


Despite losing to Burnaby South 77-75 in the final of the Telus Basketball Classic, three Churchill Bulldogs were named to the tournament all-star team: brothers Mindy and Gary Minhas and senior team newcomer Izaiah Ugoalah.

The brothers are in grades 12 and 11, respectively, and Ugoalah, only 15, became the first Grade 10 student in the 14-year history of the elite invitational to earn the accolade.

“He was a factor in every game, he showed tremendous promise and Churchill wouldn’t have been in that game without his contribution as well as that of the two Minhas brothers,” said tournament founder and director Howard Kelsey.

“Even through they were really sad that they lost, [Churchill] can find those two points. That’s what I told them after the game: Those two points are ther, you can find those two.”

Down the stretch as the lead changed hands numerous times, the Bulldogs went cold, particularly Mindy who, despite his 16 points, continuously hit iron in the final quarter. The game-winning shot was in his capable hands but the three-pointer came up short as the buzzer sounded.

“That was one heck of a game,” said Kelsey. “That was as nice of a walk-off game as we could have possibly scripted. They don’t’ get much better than that.”

In the final Saturday night at UBC’s War Memorial Gym — in the final year of the Telus Classic — Ugoalah shot over 90 per cent in the first half, wracking up 16 points of his total 22 to lead both teams. His two missed shots of the half were from the three-point line where he went two for four.

With Churchill trailing by more than 10, he started to change the pace by splitting the larger, older defenders crowding the key with a classic two-footed jump stop before slicing past them to the hoop. He quickly scored two more lay-ins on nothing more than his smooth speed and what he calls his “slasher” style.

“Slasher means I’ll go to the hoop quite a bit,” he said Monday on the phone before a Bulldogs practice.

Ugoalah, who turns 16 in January, moves up to the senior team along with three other Grade 10 students who show the strong development program at Churchill. Simon Dykstra is the junior team coach and Rick Lopez is in charge of the seniors. Several players, including Ugoalah and the Minhas brothers, also train with the Drive basketball club.

Lambert Pajayon, Karn Virk and Harry Liu are also Grade 10 students on the senior team.

Ugoalah met Pajayon and Virk playing elementary school basketball. “In Grade 5 […] it became our routine to go there to Drive and work hard.

The Bulldogs senior coach said Ugoalah’s work ethic is an important factor in his success so far and bodes very well for his future.

“The kid works so hard on his game and is so passionate about basketball,” said Lopez, who also praised the player’s coachability. “He can obviously hold his own against some of the top players in the province and he is just going to get better as he gains more confidence. Again that all comes from his work ethic and positive attitude.”

Ugoalah is a versatile player who continually impresses his coaches with his new skills, said Lopez.

“He is just starting to learn what he is capable of and how to use his athleticism to get to the hoop and make plays. One of his biggest strengths is that he is so good at so many different things and that’s what makes him hard to defend against. He can shoot the outside shot, he has great ball handling skills, and his quick first step makes him very hard to stop when he attacks the rim.”

Ugoalah’s father excelled in the high jump for UBC and his uncle on his mother’s side, Nick Ugoalah, is a five-time national champion wrestler who won gold for Canada at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Essential to Churchill’s success, Ugoalah has excellent chemistry with Gary and Mindy, the elder who is committed to the UBC Thunderbirds. Also important, Ugoalah intends to play his entire high school career at Churchill although Lopez won’t be teaching at the school next semester because he accepted the role of vice-principal at Lord Byng. He will coach the entire season at Churchill.

Similarly to Ugoalah, Mindy played for the senior team when he was in Grade 10. “He tells me don’t be scared and just always work hard and never take a day off,” said Ugoalah.

“Mindy has been a great mentor to him. It is such a bonus to have a player like Mindy around to teach the younger players the things he has learned in his development,” said Lopez.

“Izaiah is one of the nicest kids that I have had the pleasure to coach during my 23 years. You can ask any of his teachers and they will all tell you what an outstanding person and student he is. As a grade 10 he is a leader on our team that the other players listen to and respect and he has earned that through his hard work on the court and the way he carries himself off the court and the way he treats his fellow students.”