When forward Atonye Nyingifa walked into the doctor’s office in December of 2011, she prayed lightning wouldn’t strike twice.
Nyingifa injured her right leg in a game against Tennessee early last season. Soon thereafter, she went in for an MRI, hoping to avoid a repeat of the worst injury of her basketball career: an ACL tear. She first suffered the injury in the summer of 2009.
“We went in to see (the doctor), and our trainer Pam read the MRI, and it was just immediate tears,” coach Cori Close said.
“(Nyingifa) was just so hoping that (her ACL) wasn’t torn.”
In the span of 2 1/2 years, Nyingifa had torn both of her ACLs.
Even the most daring gamblers would be hard pressed to bet on the oft-injured forward returning to the court to become one of the best players on a top-15 team.
But odds don’t mean much to Nyingifa.
After sitting out the rest of the season for the second time in three years, the redshirt junior returned to become UCLA’s second leading scorer at 10.9 points per game and the team’s third leading rebounder at 7.6 rebounds per game.
“Atonye is a great example of that it’s not the traditional stature or statistics that draw your eye to her. It’s all the unique ways she finds to score the ball.
“Her shot on paper is too flat. Her moves around the basket are non-traditional. She’s undersized in whatever category. But what you can’t measure is she’s one of the most competitive individuals that you’re ever going to meet,” Close said. The coach also added that Nyingifa believes she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.
In her last five games, Nyingifa has pushed her game to a new level, averaging 16.4 points per game on highly efficient 56 percent shooting.
Both she and her coach credit her surge to the top of the stat sheets as a natural occurrence of coming back from injury.
Nyingifa’s offensive improvement, though, runs deeper than the scars on her knees.
Close, who preaches about making the right choices to her team on a daily basis, says Nyingifa didn’t disappoint in the face of her second ACL tear.
“You have a choice, whether (it) makes you bitter, or (it) makes you better. And she has allowed it to make her better,” Close said.
Unable to run, lift weights with her lower body or participate in contact practices during rehab for her torn right ACL, Nyingifa looked elsewhere to improve.
“She did a lot of work on her perimeter jumper when she was out,” Close said.
For Nyingifa, it was tons of hours of consistent repetition.
“(She did) a lot of form shooting. Same follow through every time,” redshirt senior forward Jasmine Dixon said.
Earlier in the season, Nyingifa struggled with her jumper, regularly clanking shots off the rim during games and adding roughly one airball per game for good measure.
Her shooting form may have warranted those struggles.
On her jump shot, Nyingifa barely leaves the ground, topping about an inch off the floor. A fluid stroke is replaced by a one-handed push-like maneuver. To top it off, the shot is nearly lined at the rim, a far cry from the traditional shooting arc.
“I honestly can remember since high school, I’m a good jumper as far as rebounds. But as far as my shot, I don’t like to bend my legs,” Nyingifa said.
“I just use all arms. And I just kind of direct it with my upper body.”
She stuck out her early season shooting slump, confident that eventually the hours spent working on form would pay off.
Nyingifa didn’t have to look deep for that persistence within herself.
“You have to have strength of the mind, of the heart and of the body. So she’s developed a really high amount of strength even though it might not be in the manner in which she would of chosen,” Close said of Nyingifa’s recovery.
Her shot would come around, and in a big way too. Nyingifa has become the team’s most reliable mid-range shooter.
In fact, her whole offensive game has opened up.
Always a good offensive rebounder, Nyingifa has improved her post positioning and interior moves. She has also become adept at finding holes in the defense for easy buckets.
“The reality of (sitting and watching last year) is she sees the game more completely from an X-and-O standpoint,” Close said.
The expansion of her overall game has shown in her increased scoring and confidence on the court.
Nyingifa’s recent success has added a new dimension to the No. 14 UCLA (13-2, 4-0 Pac-12) Bruins, and given the team a better chance to win its first ever outright conference championship and end national powerhouse Stanford’s ten-year title streak.
“She’s just a skilled player, and it may look non-traditional, but the bottom line is she does a lot of things on the court to help her team win,” Close said.