Big wait off Yacine Diop's shoulders
The drive from Harrisburg, Pa., to Pittsburgh took three hours, and Yacine Diop cried the entire way.
The 5-foot-10 wing, a native of Dakar, Senegal, had just found out that she would not be allowed to play basketball during her junior year of high school after transferring to Seton-La Salle Catholic (Pittsburgh) from Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.).
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association ruled she was transferring for "basketball reasons" and would thus have to sit out one year before she would be deemed eligible to compete.
"I was really upset," said Diop, who gave a verbal commitment to Pittsburgh last Thursday. "I was practicing with the team, and I felt they had no reason to keep me from playing.
"It was painful. I thought about going back home [to Senegal, where her family lives and where she is a member of the U18 national team], but I'm not a quitter. No matter what, I will handle it, and I will realize my dream."
And when Diop dreams, she dreams big.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I want to be the best basketball player in the world," she said. "I want to be the Michael Jordan on the women's side. I want to be like Kobe Bryant."
John Ashaolu, the Seton-La Salle athletic director, said he was the one who drove Diop to the appeals hearing in Harrisburg and witnessed her heartfelt reaction.
"It was tough when it first hit. She was in the back seat crying the whole time," Ashaolu said. "It was heartbreaking. But she rebounded very well.
"She is one of the hardest workers on the team. Even though she couldn't play in our games last season, she would show up one hour before practice and stay late after. When you are not playing, you usually don't have that type of motivation. But she not only showed up for practice, she did extra."
Part of that "extra" was Diop's decision to spend the summer lifting weights with the football team to get ready for her senior season.
That type of work ethic will be a welcome addition to the tradition-rich program at Seton-La Salle, which went 30-0 and won a state title in 2012 and finished 27-3 last season, advancing to the state semifinals.
Spencer Stefko, who was the coach at Chartiers Valley (Bridgeville, Pa.) until this summer, has taken over the program at Seton-La Salle, inheriting Diop and other talented players.
"Yacine is very open-minded about learning new things," Stefko said. "And she is as hard a worker as we have."
In addition to Diop, Seton-La Salle has 6-foot senior forward Naje Gibson, who has also committed to Pittsburgh. The Panthers boast the 14th-ranked class heading into next month's early signing period.
Gibson, the No. 59 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz 2014 Top 100, has formed a close bond with Diop, the No. 84 prospect in the class.
"Sometimes she gets homesick and misses her mom," Gibson said of Diop, the second oldest of five siblings. "But she is a strong girl, especially since her family is so far away."
When Diop was ruled ineligible, Gibson said she tried to console her friend.
"I couldn't really say much," she said. "If that were me, I wouldn't want people to say, 'Wait 'til next year.' I told her we still had AAU season, but there wasn't much more I could say.
"Knowing you love something and having people take it away from you, that's tough. But she was a good teammate. She cheered for everyone at our games. We all knew she wanted to be on the court with us."
Until a week ago, Diop had been undecided as to which college she would choose. She also had scholarship offers from Dayton and Cal. Diop recently took a visit to Cal and came away impressed.
In fact, Gibson thought that's where Diop would end up.
"I told her a couple times that I wouldn't mind playing with her for four or five more years," Gibson said. "I just said we'd be roommates, and it would be a lot of fun. On the court, if I need help, I know she will be there to block a shot. And I have her back too.
"But it's her decision. I want her to be happy. When I ask her about Pitt, she's like, 'It was OK.' But when I ask her about Cal, she gets happy. I think she had a good time there."
Diop, though, said she was purposely being coy.
"I [was] just messing with her," said Diop, who wants to study business in college.
Diop is a deeply religious young lady, a Muslim who has yet to find a mosque in Pittsburgh but said she prays at home.
She also speaks three languages: French, which is the official language of Senegal; Wolof, a regional language in her native land; and English.
Ron Mumbray, who coaches Diop and Gibson in AAU ball, said Pitt is going to get a pair of gems.
"Defensively, she's long and strong physically. She's hard to get around," Mumbray said of Diop. "She needs to work on her ballhandling and her shooting, but her first-step quickness is ridiculous. She can create space.
"Yacine is just a great kid with a lot of raw talent."