Achieving Abroad

Maurice Aniefiok used to stay up all night. NBA games were only available in the early-morning hours back home in Nigeria, usually between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m.

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Giving up a night's sleep was easy enough. Aniefiok had to catch a glimpse of a few of the greatest basketball players in the world when he could.

Aniefiok, of Lagos, Nigeria, took notes as he watched games, sleep deprived. He documented the moves of Dwayne Wade and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. He sat in awe of their abilities, all the while dreaming of the possibility of playing in the NBA, of earning millions and pitting his talents against those players overseas.

He'd watch college basketball, too. Any basketball. Any game that happened to cross his television set on a given night. Basketball became his passion; his life-altering opportunity.

"Two years after I started playing basketball was when I knew basketball could really, really take me far," Aniefiok said. "I told myself playing college basketball was something I really wanted to do, so I could have an opportunity to maybe go overseas or play in the NBA, just anywhere basketball could take me.

"I really didn't have a second plan."

Aniefiok made the move to the United States for the opportunity to chase his dream. He signed with Ole Miss in the spring, after overtures from a number of prospective colleges, including Duquesne and Rutgers. Aniefiok played high school basketball for Huntington (W. Va.) Prep.

If he wasn't playing basketball, he said he would likely be in school somewhere. Basketball would be secondary, a recreational distraction. But here he is, in Oxford, Miss., toiling away daily as a collegiate basketball player.

"It's way different from what you see on TV," he said, sitting in a chair inside Ole Miss' basketball practice facility. "When I was watching college basketball on TV, it was a lot easier. Sometimes I thought, 'Oh, that's what everybody can do,' but no. When you're there live it's different. It's a different ballgame. It's faster. I've never seen it like this before in my life. This is a place where just a blink, and you can lose a game. Just a blink. Just turning your head and bringing it down, and somebody cuts behind you, that might be the bucket that keeps you from going to the tournament.

"It's all out. You're either in or you're out. It's pretty tough. Pretty tough."

Maurice Aniefiok
Bruce Newman

Amateur basketball was much different in Nigeria. There were no AAU teams to join when the regular season was over, no leagues to participate in or seasonal tournaments.

When the season finished, months would pass before a basketball was picked up again for organized competition -- a stark contrast from the U.S., where basketball is a year-round sport.

"I never played games as much as folks my age play here. We don't have AAU. We don't have a lot of competitions. Even the little ones we have, we approach with so much energy, because that might be the last one you have for the year. It wasn't the same thing like what y'all have here," he said.

"What you guys have here is more organized. There's always something to do. In the whole year, there's no time for you to sit around and say for two or three months I don't have anything to do. As soon as you're done with the season, you have to rest for a few weeks before AAU games are kicking in. There's always something to do, and that kind of like gives you an edge."

He's had to do more to keep up. He stays late in the gym, getting as many shots up as he can. He arrives early. He soaks in every bit of information he can get from head coach Andy Kennedy and veteran players who have been there, done that.

Aniefiok acknowledges he's behind his teammates in terms of development. He has a chip on his shoulder, something to prove, if only to himself.

"All I need to do is keep working hard, because I want to get there. I want to be as good as they are," he said. "All I need to do is spend more time in the gym. When everybody's out there partying, I have to be in the gym working on something I know I'm not really good. That's paid off and brought me this far so far. I don't want to stop doing that."

Aniefiok has struggled in his true freshman season. He's attempted 30 shots but made just eight, good for a 27 percent field-goal percentage. Of his 15 3s, only three were good. Rather than sulk, allowing the struggles to become a mental battle, he's worked to be reliable in other areas of his game -- rebounding, defense, assists.

And the work is apparently paying off. Despite the shooting woes, Kennedy has played Aniefiok, on average, 14.3 minutes per game. He's a key reserve.

"Oh, my God. That's one thing I don't really want to talk about," Aniefiok said. "I don't really know. That's why I don't want to think about it. I think I've been too concerned about it. Every time we practice, I always knock down my shot, but when it gets to games, I think I've been thinking about it too much."

"We want to make sure, first and foremost, that he's taking the right shots; the right shots for him, the right shots for us," Kennedy said. "Then we want to make sure that he's doing it technically sound, and we try to show him areas he needs to improve upon. And then it's just getting reps. Let's get game reps, let's continue to believe, because for a shooter all it takes is one or two to go in and then everything changes. We're trying to remain positive and make sure that he's taking the right shots within the context of our offense."

Maurice Aniefiok
Ben Garrett

The shooting will come. It has to. Aniefiok was signed because of his abilities as a shooter. Aniefiok, rated a three-star prospect by, averaged nearly 14 points per game and 6.6 rebounds for Huntington Prep last season. He shot 41 percent from 3.

"He's a very nice person," Aniefiok said of Kennedy. "He just tells me, because he's been a ballplayer before, he understands when you're in situations like this. He tells me, just don't think about it. Just let it go.

"Even if it's not dropping, do something else. That's the reason why you're in the game. You're not just a player limited to just shooting. You can do something else. So pretty much that's what I've been focusing on. I just want to do something else. As long as we get a win, it doesn't matter if I drop 30 points. As long as we get a win, and I can create for other people, I'm good with that."

Ole Miss (5-1) is in Chicago to take on DePaul (4-1) tonight at 8 p.m. The Blue Demons are riding a two-game winning streak, and nearly pulled off a non-conference win over Minnesota in the Old Spice Classic.

The game will be broadcast by ESPNU. The Rebels follow Thursday's game with another road game against Penn State Sunday.

Ole Miss lost by 30 to Marquette in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, though the Rebels won two of the three games they played, including the finale against TCU to finish in third place.

The Rebels picked up an important win over Miami, a team they lost to by double-digits last season, in their most recent action Nov. 25.

"I think the loss we had against Marquette has really made us come together and understand that we have to play as a team," Aniefiok said. "To me, since I've been playing basketball, I've never lost like that in my life. It was a shame. That, in a way, has made us approach every game like it's the last game. If you were at the Miami game, that was one of the things I kept telling my teammates. Let's play this game like it's the last. Let's not think about DePaul or Penn State, let's approach this like it's the last game. We have to win this one, then we look forward to the next one.

"Looking at the team, I know we have so much. Just like AK keeps saying, so much that we're not giving yet … so much. Strongly, I believe our non-conference games, we'll take care of those. I'm very positive about that."

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