From unknown to star, Northwestern’s Kunaiyi-Akpanah leaving a legacy

Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah powers up two points. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah powers up two points. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.

She began playing basketball at 14 and has had the men’s basketball coach at Northwestern naming drills after her. She’s a quiet leader who does stand up comedy – an instinctive athlete who wants to outwork everyone.

Her journey might not be typical, but Wildcat senior post Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah always seems to be in the right places at the right times.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished her career as one of the best rebounders in Big Ten history. Her 381 boards last season ranked fourth all-time in league history. She continued that pace this year, finishing third in the conference in rebounds and 13th in the nation, and she will have a chance to add to her totals tonight, as Northwestern hosts Dayton in the first round of the WNIT.

Teammate Lindsey Pulliam said Kunaiyi-Akpanah dominates under the basket because she is singularly-focused.

“The only thing that goes through her mind is ‘get the orange thing,’” Pulliam said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter who’s around her, it doesn’t matter if they’re on the same team. She has the mindset that she is going to get every rebound.”

Wildcat coach Joe McKeown said Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s skills come naturally to her.

“Pallas is relentless, just going after every ball. And that’s something you can’t teach, whether you’re Dennis Rodman, or whoever,” he said. “The fundamentals of rebounding, the ability to block out and the timing, there’s repetition that helps. But with Pallas, you just want her to go get the ball. Don’t make it harder than it is.”

As an ESPN top-100 recruit coming out of a college preparatory and boarding school about two hours outside of Atlanta, it’s no surprise that Kunaiyi-Akpanah has performed so well in college. But becoming a top prospect was quite the journey.

She was born in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, and attended a boarding school a few hours away from her hometown. This limited her time with her family and forced her to grow up quickly.

I usually only saw my family during the visiting days, so I probably saw them once or twice a month,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “But it was still hard. When my mom would take me to the airport to go back to my boarding school, I’d be standing on one side of the boarding line and she would be on the other, and I’d just be crying.”

She was 14 when she began playing basketball, and received her break that same year. She was playing at an outdoor court when Hope 4 Girls Africa founder Mobolaji Akiode discovered her.

Akiode created the basketball camp in West Africa to increase participation and empowerment of women in Africa through sports, and he often placed them into U.S. schools.

While Kunaiyi-Akpanah was still new to basketball, her upside was obvious.

I was a skinny, 6-1 girl, so I think she saw that,” she said of Akiode.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah joined the program, and Akiode, who played basketball at Fordham University, quickly looked for a place in the United States for the teenager to improve her game.

There were two options for which high school in America to go to,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “One was a day school somewhere in the States where I would live with a foster family, the other was a boarding school. I was already at a boarding school, so I chose that one.”

She enrolled as a sophomore at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a college preparatory and boarding school in Georgia in early Oct. 2012, as more of an athlete than a basketball player. She quickly made her mark on the school, joining the tennis, track and field and volleyball teams, in addition to the basketball team.

Although she was raw, her skills improved every year. Through her performances for both her high school and summer teams, she eventually began receiving interest from major college basketball programs.

“I didn’t even know I was getting attention until I got back to school and had two trash bags of letters from colleges,” she said.

ESPN ranked her at the 100th best recruit in the nation her senior year, describing her as a “quick-leaper, aggressive on glass” with “off-the-charts potential.”

When McKeown came to Rabun Gap to scout Kunaiyi-Akpanah, he found her on the court – but it wasn’t the one he expected.

“We just went to visit with her that day, and she was out there messing around playing tennis,” he said with a laugh. “She was coming to the net, which would be scary, and she was just dinking the ball over the net. It cracked me up.”

When McKeown finally saw her on the basketball court, he saw a player with a high ceiling who needed a lot of work.

“She could do some things that not many people could do,” he said. “And she was playing basketball for her high school and even for her summer program, she was really raw. She was still learning how to play. She hadn’t played a lot in Nigeria, but she was tremendously gifted. That’s what we saw. The potential more than anything else.”

Kunaiyi-Akpanah eventually committed to Northwestern, focusing on both its basketball team and great academics.

“You can have okay academics and a great team and I respect that, but having great academics too is really cool,” she said.

Despite still being relatively new to the game, it was clear Kunaiyi-Akpanah could play. She averaged almost eight rebounds her freshman year in Evanston, including a span from Jan. 28- Feb. 6 of her freshman year, where she grabbed 16 rebounds against Ohio State, 13 rebounds one week later against Illinois, then 16 more two days later.

The game against the Buckeyes stood out to McKeown as a breakthrough for the young player.

“We were playing Ohio State, who was ranked fifth in the country at the time. Big game, TV game,” McKeown said. “She was a freshman, and we decided to start her. That’s when we first realized – I think she had 16 points and 16 rebounds – and I was like, ‘whoa.’ She was playing against some really good teams and some really good players, and it really didn’t faze her. That game kind of spurred her career, confidence-wise.”

After a down sophomore year, Kunaiyi-Akpanah had a historic junior year. She was second in the Big Ten with 11.9 rebounds per game, and her 18 double-doubles were eighth in the nation.

Her games became that of legend, and that brought extra fans to watch the Wildcats.

“She had one game – I can’t remember which – she had 20 or 21 rebounds,” McKeown said. “And our president, Morton Schapiro, he comes to most of our games, he was in his own mind keeping count. He was like, ‘that’s wrong, she had 23.’”

“She became known. People started watching her stats. She had 20-rebound games like they were routine, which they are not.”

After the record year, Kunaiyi-Akpanah didn’t let raised expectations bother her. She was named a captain, winning the consensus of both the players and the staff not through her words, but her actions, according to McKeown.

“She does it in a very quiet way, with her practice habits and her personality. She tries to do the right thing every day, on and off the court,” he said.

“And then more importantly, [you] have to want it. I think that’s what separated Pallas from a lot of players in college basketball. She wanted to invest the time, and just has this great learning curve, she just wants to be really good and puts the work in.”

Kunaiyi-Akpanah was excellent throughout the year, being named First Team All-Big Ten by the media alongside her teammate Pulliam, after finishing third in the conference in rebounds and 13th in the nation with 11 rebounds, while increasing her scoring to 11.1 points.

She’s been so impactful during her career that Northwestern’s men’s head coach Chris Collins took notice.

“Chris Collins, he loves her,” McKeown said. “He’s trying to name drills after her. His dad [Doug Collins] played with Moses Malone and some great players. Chris is always telling his guys, ‘I wish you guys would rebound like Pallas.’”

She is particularly effective on the offensive glass, grabbing 4.9 offensive rebounds a game – fourth in the nation – and does such a good job keeping possessions alive that some of her teammates joke she misses shots on purpose, just to get the rebound.

“We’ll feed her in the post, she’ll miss the layup and go get like four more rebounds,” Pulliam said, laughing. “And I swear every time she misses she’s trying to pad her stats and get more rebounds!”

Pulliam, the third0-highest scorer in the conference, added that Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s rebounding skills do more than just grab boards; they help the psyche of her teammates.

“You know any time you put up a shot and if it comes off, there is a chance Pallas is knocking her hands on it, so for sure it makes it a lot easier to take the shots that I do,” she said.

Off the court, Kunaiyi-Akpanah has made sure to get involved with the Northwestern campus, including, Pulliam said, performing stand up comedy this year during a talent show.

“We had the whole team in the front row, and her jokes were so funny,” Pulliam said. “We were screaming, people were looking at us crazy, but it was awesome to watch her do that.”

Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished the regular season with 318 rebounds, which was enough to put her at 1,021 career rebounds – the 19th most in Big Ten history. She became the 23rd player in conference history to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. As the Wildcats prepare for tonight’s game, Kunaiyi-Akpanah will have a chance to add more rebounds and potentially even a championship to an already-illustrious career.

Yet to her, the numbers will never be how she is defined.

“I’m most proud of the image of myself I have been able to put forward to people,” she said.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah is set to graduate this year, and is hoping to continue playing basketball, whether in the WNBA or Europe. It’s a long way from the basketball court in Abuja, Nigeria, where she picked up the sport about seven years ago. While Kunaiyi-Akpanah is unclear what the future hold, her past proves she’s in the right position.

“Every time I talk to my mom she tells me that they were just praying for me,” she said. “It’s busy here, especially in season, so I don’t always have time to go to church, but it’s incredible to know that I have these people praying for me.”