Rising Star Kennedy Umeh Passes the Exam This Year for U.S. U17 World Cup Team
One year has changed so much.
Kennedy Umeh has gone from being among the last cuts for the USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team in 2021 to making it onto a star-studded U17 squad that will compete in the 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup running July 9-17 in Debrecen, Hungary.
She used last year’s setback, in which she was one of 16 finalists, as motivation.
“Last year I went through this experience and I didn’t make the team,” she said during the team’s pre-tournament training camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Instead of letting that demotivate myself, I guess, I used that as my motor and my reason to push myself hard every day against whomever I’m playing. I never stepped down from a challenge after that so that I’m ready for the level of toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness, that’s needed to make this team.”
There was no guarantee that Umeh would make the final roster of 12, with 40 of the top players in the country vying for those coveted spots. That was even more the case since the 15-year-old is the youngest on the team. Umeh said she gained valuable experience in seeing how fellow post players Breya Cunningham and Sunaja Agara operate down low up close.
“It’s kind of crazy that I’m the youngest here, but it’s also a good learning experience because Breya and Nunu (Sunaja Agara), they also play the five…just watching them and seeing the kinds of moves they do and when they do them is great for me to see and to implement into my game,” Umeh said. “I’m just happy I can see it every day.”
She is a rising junior at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland, after leading the Rams to a 22-4 record this past season.
Part of Umeh’s adjustment from last year was to focus on playing in the post and developing her physicality, as opposed to spending more time on the perimeter, even though she has become more versatile over time.
“Growing up, I’ve always been the biggest person wherever I went,” said Umeh, who is six feet, four inches and 200 pounds. “Now that’s starting to change now that I’m getting older and seeing different levels of competition, but that background of being big inside is always going to be there for me even as I develop my outside game.”
Umeh has displayed an increased commitment to her game to that extent. Her coaches taught her a plethora of new moves. The difference this time around…she spent more time in the gym than she ever had before.
“Last year, I would practice during practice and maybe two days otherwise,” Umeh said. “But this year, between last year’s USA trials and this one, I made sure that I was with my team on the weekends to practice. But then during the week, I would make sure I would get four days a week, sometimes I wouldn’t take a break.”
A window into her mentality is how Umeh considers 6-foot-9 WNBA star Brittney Griner to be a role model. Griner has won two Olympic gold medals and two World Cup golds with Team USA.
“Her strength, her physical toughness, even though I’m not that size, I want to be that strong and I want to be that dominant the way she is,” Umeh said.
It’s a dream come true for Umeh and her teammates to represent the United States. That was made even more evident in training camp during a team bonding exercise in which players were asked to speak about a past U.S. women’s star.
“Our team, we had to do a presentation on someone that wore our number in the past and I did mine on (1996 Olympic gold medalist) Venus Lacy,” Umeh said. “And it’s just so humbling to me that I’m wearing the same jersey number as somebody like that.”
Team USA has a history of success in the U17 Women’s World Cup, winning the event four out of five times including in 2018 in Belarus, when the team featured current college stars Aliyah Boston and Paige Bueckers and no game was closer than 35 points.
The expectation for this year is a repeat performance.
“We’re all going to go hard, that’s our gold medal mentality, that’s what coach wants us to do, that’s what coach wants to see, so we’re going to put our best foot forward, play hard, play as a team, and just have fun together on and off the court,” Umeh said.
Santosh Venkataraman is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.