Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
It didn’t take long for Sandrine Nzeukou to realize she was living out a dream.
Nzeukou (pronounced ZOO-koo), a senior post player on the UNLV women’s basketball team, played for her native Cameroon last month, helping them to a sixth place finish out of 12 teams at the FIBA Africa Women’s Championships. The top two finishers qualified for the 2012 Olympics.
It was an experience she won’t soon forget. She can still picture the pageantry from the tournament in Mali, easily rehashing her once-in-a-lifetime experience and speaking fondly about the friendships made.
She hadn’t been to Cameroon since her family moved to Arizona when she was 5, making this more than a basketball trip. It was a chance to visit family and get in touch with her roots.
“It was definitely a culture shock since I have been living here (the United States) for so long,” Nzeukou said. “I was scared to go back and worried how different it would be. But I quickly got acclimated and comfortable. It really felt like (the players on the team) we were all family. It was like we were sisters. We were very, very close.”
Nzeukou was contacted on facebook by an assistant coach for the Cameroon team, inviting her to a national camp for 25 players. She eventually made the team of 12, quickly becoming one of their top players.
“I was able to grow with my leadership skills,” she said. “I was able to help girls with what I know and they helped me with what they knew.”
More important for the UNLV program was Nzeukou’s experience on the court in averaging a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds in seven tournament games. She was easily one of the top interior players at the event.
The 6-foot-2 Nzeukou lacked an aggressive style of play at times last year for UNLV — something she couldn’t shy away from while playing for Cameroon, where they level of play internationally was highly physical.
“Fundamentally, it wasn’t advanced to the level we have here,” Nzeukou said. “But it was so much more physical and that is what (my game) needed.”
Despite averaging 6.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last year for UNLV, there were games in which Nzeukou was inconsistent. When the Lady Rebels open the season next month, don’t be surprised if Nzeukou’s performances resemble those of her stint with the Cameroon team.
“What they talked about, and what their focus was, is exactly what she needs to get better — to be more physical and more aggressive,” UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. “Plus, any time you go play with other people and you are playing basketball at a higher level it is a good experience.”
Nzeukou started all 31 games last year for UNLV in averaging 24.8 minutes per game. At one point during Mountain West Conference play, she recorded a double-double of points and rebounds in four of five games.
It’s comparable to how she played for Cameroon, where her ability to find success will surely give her a boost of confidence with UNLV. She is one of several players Olivier expects big things from this year after the Lady Rebels finished with an 11-20 record last season.
“She is very steady,” Olivier said. “The team was just talking about her and said it is really fun to play with Sandrine because she is always at a 5 — never too high and never too low. When she is hot and when her shot is on, we play our best basketball. For us, it is about her being productive. If she can do that, we will be a better basketball team.”
Nzeukou plans to work in international business after her basketball career — a run she hopes includes more appearances with the national team. She gave her national team game shorts to her two brothers and her jersey to her father, Marcel Nzeukou, who played for Cameroon in the 1980s.
Long before his daughter was invited to join the national team, Marcel Nzeukou had planned a summer trip to Cameroon to start building a house. He was able to watch the tournament on television.
“It meant a lot to me to represent my family and follow in my dad’s footsteps,” she said. “I was excited to share the experience with him.”