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Canadian Ejim helping push Gonzaga women’s basketball to new heights

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The University of Gonzaga and Canadian basketball seem to go hand-in-hand.

Kelly Olynyk, Robert Sacre, Kyle Wiltjer, Brandon Clarke, Andrew Nembhard – there is no shortage of names that have come through the program and ended up playing professionally.

And there’s at least one more on deck – one who is having the greatest statistical season ever by a Gonzaga player hailing from north of the border.

Calgary’s Yvonne Ejim is averaging 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds for the Bulldogs, currently ranked 17th in the AP Poll and poised for their highest-ever seed at the women’s NCAA Tournament, having twice qualified as a fifth seed. 

Canadian basketball fans may not be as familiar with Gonzaga’s women’s program as they are the men, but there’s a strong chance that changes this March.

Gonzaga is 18-2, with the greatest win in program history under its belt – a 96-78 blowout on Dec. 3 over Stanford, which was ranked third at the time, the highest-ranked opponent the Bulldogs have beaten since their inception in 1986. Ejim had a season-high 27 points in that win, helping her earn NCAA Player of the Week for the first time in her college career.

“That’s a huge testimony to us, just how we came in, how we executed,” Ejim said. “[That win over Stanford] is something we always know we can pull out and put into other games. That’s what really builds our confidence going into March Madness, knowing we can be that team that wants to win, and can win against really great teams.

“Our resilience is really strong. I feel like that’s what’s going to help us get deep in the tournament and help us sustain our high level of play. We’re still working towards it…we’re working every day. I think that’s what’s going to grow and really help us down the road.”

Ejim has improved in each of her four seasons at Gonzaga, increasing her scoring average year-after-year while making an enormous leap in terms of efficiency. As a senior, she’s shooting 65.4 per cent from the field, which leads the West Coast Conference (WCC) and ranks seventh in the NCAA. 

It has already been a decorated season for Ejim, including four nods for WWC Player of the Week, and an inclusion last week on the midseason watch list for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year. 

The improvement between Ejim’s junior and senior years can be attributed in part to an increased role, but also to some invaluable exposure she had over the summer. Ejim got her first experience with Canada’s senior national team in June and July, joining them for the FIBA AmeriCup in Mexico. 

“The environment, the team, the players and coaches I was with this past summer with Canada Basketball, it’s just a whole other level,” she said. “Training with them, competing with them, learning from them…it just adds to the game that I’m always trying to develop every single day.”

Ejim played in all seven games, averaging 7.9 points and 4.3 rebounds, helping Canada to a third-place finish.

“I feel like [the experience with the national team] brought a really big spark into how I started [this season at Gonzaga], and how I’m continuing to develop,” she added. “I never want to lose what I gained in the summer…It’s stuck with me, and it’s helped me be the player I am today.”

Canada’s women inched closer to their fourth straight Olympic berth in November with a trio of pre-qualification wins in Colombia to earn their spot in next month’s FIBA qualification tournament. Ejim’s commitment to the Bulldogs will keep her from suiting up with the national team in February, but she’s crossing her fingers for a chance to represent Canada this summer in Paris.

“[Competing in the Olympics], that’s my highest goal, for sure,” she said

For now, the focus remains on Gonzaga, and a deep tournament run this March and April. The Bulldogs have reached the Sweet Sixteen four times, and had their best showing in 2011, going all the way to the Elite Eight.

Ejim is hoping to lead them a step or two beyond that this year, before the next journey in her career.

“I just want to play amazing basketball,” she said. “I’m trying to grow as a player…I’m trying to help my team grow, help my teammates, help the program. I hope that leads me into playing professionally.

“I’m very fortunate to be at Gonzaga. They’ve given me an amazing experience.”