COLUMBIA — Abi Olajuwon makes it look easy. Without breaking stride, she receives a crisp chest pass from Amanda Thompson around the free throw line, takes two steps and gently flips in a left-handed lay-up off the backboard.
This may seem like no big deal. But for somebody the size of Oklahoma’s Olajuwon, it’s definitely an eye catcher. At 6-foot-4 and with a wide frame, Olajuwon seems like a giant compared to Missouri's post players Shakara Jones (6-foot-2) and Jessra Johnson (6-foot-1), who have the task of guarding her.
For most of the game, Olajuwon has her way. She has no problem gaining position at the low block. Olajuwon plants her feet near the block, puts her rear end into Johnson and extends her long, muscular arms, signaling she wants the ball in her hands. She finished the game with 8 points and 10 rebounds, pushing Oklahoma past Missouri 62-61 on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena.
“She made her presence felt,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said.
This should come as no surprise. It's in the genes. She is the daughter of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, a two-time NBA Champion in the mid-1990s with the Houston Rockets. For her senior year, Olajuwon even took up the number, 34, the digits her father made famous.
Much like her father, Abi Olajuwon is a prolific scorer and rebounder in addition to being an outstanding shot-blocker. Abi Olajuwon averages 12.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Although she doesn’t have Hakeem’s signature “Dream Shake," a series of fakes and spin moves that often freed himself from defenders, Abi Olajuwon does possess a similar set of skills featuring nimble footwork and a soft shooting touch around the basket.
“He’s an agile player,” Abi Olajuwon said of her father. “He knows how to be finesse and as far as footwork, I try to emulate a lot of it.”
Coming out of The Marlborough School in Los Angeles, Abi Olajuwon was a McDonald’s All-American in 2006. A highly touted recruit, she was expected to do big things for the Sooners. However, she only averaged 1.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game in her first three seasons at Oklahoma. That was in part due to having to play behind Courtney Paris, a four-time All-American center. Competing against Paris in practice for three years helped improve Abi Olajuwon’s game dramatically and in her final season for the Sooners, she is having a breakout year.
“She’s gotten a whole lot better,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “Not even the same, not even close to the same player she was when she came in as a freshman.”
Abi Olajuwon said: “I feel like in high school, I was more of a finesse player. Courtney’s more about strong post presence. She had amazing hands and great feet and I’m trying to emulate it without trying to be her. Just trying to be myself but making sure I still have that post presence that a lot of people didn’t think we’d have this year.”
Following Oklahoma’s Final Four loss to Louisville back in March, Abi Olajuwon immediately started an off-season training regiment. Her routine included 5:30 a.m. boot camp sessions, kickboxing classes and extra cardio workouts in the evening. Along with her new diet, Abi Olajuwon shed 30 pounds and gained strength and stamina in preparation for the upcoming season.
“It’s not about, ‘Oh, I want to do this,’” Abi Olajuwon said. “It’s like I have to do this for our team to be remotely successful.”
As a result of her hard work, Abi Olajuwon’s presence has helped lead Oklahoma to a 13-4 overall record and a No. 13 national ranking. The Sooners improved to 3-1 in Big 12 play with the win.
“I don’t think she’s nearly as good right now as she has a chance to be deep in March,” Coale said.