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women’s basketball Collier’s father awed by her success

December 4, 2018

It was another victory for Geno Auriemma in a career full of them.

The head coach of the UConn women’s basketball team had landed a commitment from a consensus top-10 recruit in the Class of 2015. Her name was Napheesa Collier.

Collier, a star forward out of Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis, had chosen the Huskies over Notre Dame, Kentucky, Maryland and her state school, Missouri, marking the end of a long yet fruitful recruitment.

“It was incredible,” her father, Gamal, said Saturday by phone. “I visited every single school that called. It was unbelievable. It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it, all these schools calling to offer your kid an education to continue to play ball. … I had to be objective. All the visits we made, I wanted to stay.

“It still blows my mind, the opportunity that’s available to people here. I don’t think it’ll ever get old to me — never. I’m still pinching myself. It’s unbelievable.”

To understand Gamal’s fascination with the college recruiting process is to understand his backstory. Gamal, who had grown up as the son of a prominent political figure in Sierra Leone — Gershon, who helped negotiate his country’s independence from Great Britain in 1961 and later was an ambassador to the United Nations — moved to the United States in 1993 to pursue the American dream. He was just 23 at the time and barely had any money after pursing a degree at Buckingham University in England.

“I didn’t have any money or any resources, so it was difficult to survive on the East Coast,” said Gamal, who now lives in Jefferson City, Mo. “My brother, his friend told him it was easier to move here and go to school in Jefferson City. So, he came first. … I was struggling in New Jersey. He said it’s a better life here.”

Gamal had hoped to transfer to Rutgers to continue studying political science, but never took a class. He couldn’t afford to. And so, he heeded the advice of his brother, Gershon “Bernard” Collier, and moved to the Midwest. He arrived on a Friday and began working at a nursing home the following Monday, staying with his brother until he could afford his own apartment.

“At that time, rent was like $325,” he said. “After my first paycheck, I was able to at least move into a place physically. I got a mattress and a board, and we would manage that until things got better. It was a nice adventure.”

Gamal is now 48. His daughter is nearing the homestretch of a remarkable college career, one marked by a national championship in 2015-16 and a lengthy list of accolades. Collier, a 6-foot-1 forward, entered this, her senior season, having recorded 1,609 points and 808 rebounds over 112 games, including 83 starts for the 11-time national champions.

“It’s surreal,” Gamal said. “You still kind of pinch yourself to make sure it’s real. You know? All of a sudden, it’s gone by too quickly — it’s a cliché. I thought I’d be used to it by now, but it’s still brand new. It’s always a pleasure to watch, and it’s always excruciating.

“She’s a grown woman now, but you can’t watch it without anxieties being a parent and a fan.”

A CELEBRATION

This is a nostalgic week for Collier, who on Monday was slated to have her uniform retired by her high school. On Tuesday, the senior will play at homecoming game at Chaifetz Arena (7 p.m.), where the newly minted No. 1 team in the country will take on St. Louis.

“I’ve never played at SLU,” Collier said. “I’m super excited. I can’t wait to go back and play in front of my family that haven’t seen me play in person before, so it’s going to be really exciting.”

Gamal, his wife, Sarah, who grew up in Missouri, and their son, Kai, were courtside for the Huskies’ 89-71 victory over Notre Dame at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind., on Sunday. Collier overcame foul trouble to score 16 points and pull down 15 rebounds over 31 minutes to help defeat the defending national champions.

“It was happiness all around,” Gamal said with a laugh.

Added Napheesa: “We’re feeling really good. We’re really proud of our effort and how we played. We do have some stuff to work on, but I think we’re going to go home feeling pretty good about ourselves tonight.”

Calm, composed and mild-mannered, Collier is a model of consistency for the Huskies. Averaging 18.0 points and a team-high 10.6 rebounds, Collier is someone who Auriemma has come to expect the most out of.

“If every player worked as hard as Pheesa on the floor, they would be a lot better than they are,” Auriemma said following an 80-42 victory over Vanderbilt earlier this season. “There’s very few players in America that have Pheesa’s motor. She just goes. She goes after every rebound. She’s constantly trying to get involved in every play.

“There isn’t a time when she just runs down the floor and says, ‘I need some time off.’ ”

While she’s not overly vocal, Collier has accepted the responsibility of a larger leadership role. Her, Katie Lou Samuelson and Crystal Dangerfield were the only starters to return this season. So far, Collier has led by example, striving to become the first Husky since Rebecca Lobo in 1993-94 to average a double-double for an entire season.

“She plays to her strengths very well,” said DePaul coach Doug Bruno, who watched Collier drop 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a 99-63 win over his team last Wednesday. “And she doesn’t come off her strengths. She knows how to use her body, she knows how to play with her back to the basket. … She’s extending her game. She can extend it. I think that just makes her a tough matchup.

“She can take you off the bounce, but she knows how to use her body.”

None of what Collier has accomplished surprises her father.

“I think she’s very determined, very hard-working, very disciplined,” Gamal said. “She has a love for what she does. I think she’s blessed with the ability to do some things. She’s just a very passionate and determined individual.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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