March 21, 2010 12:11:00 AM
STARKVILLE — Growing up is part of the college experience.
From meeting new people, being exposed to different ideas, and acquiring a liberating sense of freedom, attending a college or a university often helps young men and women set the course for the rest of their lives.
But imagine going through that maturation process without family members nearby.
For the past four years, Rima Kalonda, Armelie Lumanu, and Chanel Mokango have armed themselves with cell phones and hours worth of calling cards and have done their best to share their journey with their family.
Today, the three women’s basketball players from Kinshasa, Congo, will take what could be the final step on their trip when seventh-seeded Mississippi State (19-12) takes on 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee (25-5) at 1:30 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.
That MSU has earned back-to-back bids to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002-03 is a credit to Kalonda, Lumanu, and Mokango, who have played integral roles in helping the program have two of its most successful seasons in its history.
“They have changed Mississippi State’s program,” LSU coach Van Chancellor said. “They came in the with the mind-set that they were going to make Mississippi State one of the best defensive teams in the country. I am glad they’re graduating.”
Lumanu, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, was named Second-Team All-Southeastern Conference and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. She joined Mokango, a 6-5 center, on the All-SEC Defensive team for the second consecutive season.
Lumanu is second on the team in scoring (12.3 points per game), leads the team in rebounding (7.2) and steals (80), and is second on the team in assists (122).
“She can change a game on the perimeter (with her defense) and get offense from her defense,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “If you attack the basket then you have a shot blocker (Mokango) behind her, which makes it a very tough combination. It was a tough matchup for us and for any team that wins games off of its offense. This time of year it is really important to have stoppers, and they have stoppers inside and outside.”
Mokango, the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots, is fifth in scoring (10.8 ppg.), second in rebounding (7.1), and first in blocks (77).
Kalonda, a 6-3 center, has provided consistent contributions in a dual role (15 starts), and is averaging 2.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
“Family is so important to them,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “I am excited about the fact they will get their degrees in May. What makes them special is the commitment and the sacrifice they have made. They are good-hearted and good kids, and they care about their team and want to win and accept responsibility if they’re not doing their best. They are all about the team, and that is very special.”
But numbers tell only part of the story about what the three players have meant to the program. They arrived in Starkville by way of Southeastern Illinois College, a two-year school where they made an immediate impact. Greg Franklin and Franqua Bedell played key roles in helping the players transition to the United States.
Franklin, who was the head coach at SIC for the players’ freshman season, first discovered the three players from a friend of a friend. He then was fortunate to obtain a copy of a two-year old tape of the players with the Congo National Team in the African Cup. Due to the age of the tape, Franklin had to project how the 15- or 16-year-olds in the tape would fare in college. He wasn’t sure how the players had matured since then, but he knew they had potential and began the process of trying to get them to come to the U.S.
The relationship began with a “no.” That was the first word Mokango said to Franklin when he first tried to talk to the players. Fortunately, Franklin had a player on his SIC team, Aminata Diop, who was from Senegal and who spoke French. After some initial difficulty, the players struck up a conversation and the process to bring them to the U.S. officially started.
“Getting them through the embassy was something else, too,” Franklin said. “They were having an election (in The Congo) and the lady at the consulate told me if we didn’t get the paperwork and get them through before June or July, they probably won’t get out.”
Franklin said members of the embassy told you never know what is going to happen in a country, so it is best to get players out as fast as possible.
“They were lucky to get their stuff,” Franklin said. He said the experience SIC had in helping Diop get her visa after multiple attempts showed them the importance of being organized.
Bedell took over for Franklin at SIC after he accepted a job as an assistant coach at MSU. The development process continued for all three players in their sophomore seasons. Lumanu had the most success, earning NJCAA First-Team All-America honors and a spot on the NJCAA All-Tournament team.
When Bedell took a job as an assistant coach at MSU, the players decided the relationships they had built with both coaches were important enough to follow them to Starkville.
Bedell said he and the entire MSU women’s basketball family have benefited from having Kalonda, Lumanu, and Mokango in the program.
“I think they were very motivated and they trusted coach G (Franklin) would get them better and get them to the next level,” Bedell said “They have been motivated to do something with their lives. and to help their families.”
In the process, all three have learned how to speak English and are on track to earn degrees in kinesiology (Kalonda), physical education (Lumanu), and interdisciplinary studies (Mokango).
They also have become impact players in one of the nation’s toughest women’s basketball conferences.
“It has been amazing to me,” Bedell said of the progress the players have made. “When I think about when they first came and we picked them up from the airport, they had little suitcases with hardly anything in them. They spoke hardly any English and now they are very accomplished student-athletes, and they all have worked hard work academically.”
Last month, Bedell talked to the players and told them he was so proud of them for fighting through the ups and downs and sticking with the Lady Bulldogs. He knew it wasn’t easy and is thankful he had the opportunity to be a small part of their road to adulthood.
“They have had a lot of people who have helped them grow and mature and be where they are, and I think that is what keeps them striving,” Bedell said. “They have a lot of people to make proud, and they have done a good job of doing that.”
Kalonda, Lumanu, and Mokango also have done a great job keeping their family updated on their accomplishments.
Lumanu said she typically talks to her family Saturdays or Sundays. She said if she wants to talk a little longer she will buy five calling cards so she has plenty of minutes.
Lumanu, who calls herself a “daddy’s girl,” admits it was “scary” at first at SIC, but that she grew more comfortable there and at MSU thanks to the support of an extended “family.”
“I have grown as a person and as a player,” Lumanu said. “I remember one day I was talking to my momma and she heard my voice and she said, ‘You have changed. You have grown up. It is just in the way you’re talking and the way you’re thinking,’ I have grown up.
“We made a lot of friends in Illinois and we made a lot of friends at Mississippi State. They are all like family. It is something I will never forget.”
Lumanu is focused on her degree and getting a chance to play professional basketball. The times have changed from the days at home when she said she was “young” and would break out and dance when she heard music. She laughed when told she looks like a serious person when she is on the court.
Despite Lumanu’s stoic countenance, it is impossible to deny her skills or the skills of Kalonda and Mokango.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.