Onyekachi Nzeh (right) has provided a major boost in the post for Upper Darby this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
SOUDERTON –– Bob Miller’s plans changed drastically in October. That’s when Onyekachi Nzeh walked into the Upper Darby coach’s office and told him he was interested in joining the basketball team.
“I wanted to try out basketball this year, see how far I could go with it,” Nzeh said. “My mom, she’s really big on the NBA, so she wanted me to be an NBA player.”
That sounds like an ambitious plan for a sophomore who didn’t play organized basketball as a freshman. But Nzeh is not your average sophomore.
First of all, as a freshman on Upper Darby’s track team, Nzeh ––who goes by Kachi –– started to attract Division I interest for his abilities as a 400 meter sprinter, winning some major races as a 14- and 15-year-old. On top of that, Nzeh had enjoyed a growth spurt since his freshman year, rising from 6-foot-5 to somewhere around 6-7, and wasn’t done adding height to his frame.
So with some prodding from his mother, Uloma Nzeh, Kachi decided to give basketball another shot.
“The trouble was,” Miller said, “My entire system was in place without a big guy.”
But of course, he wasn’t going to turn down the intriguing youngster, especially considering Nzeh’s older brother Chigozie –– now at West Chester University –– had played a couple years of basketball for Miller during his time at Upper Darby. And now he had to get his players to adjust to having a true center in the Royals’ lineup for the first time in a while.
“I’ve been at Upper Darby a long time but I haven’t had a lot of big guys,” Miller said. “Kachi made the comment, ‘I don’t think these guys know how to play with a big guy.’ He’s smarter than me, he’s absolutely right.”
Over the course of the season, the Royals have been figuring out. And they’ve certainly figured out just how helpful Nzeh is to their on-court abilities, something Souderton found out the hard way on Friday night in a District 1 6A first-round playoff matchup. With Nzeh looming large in the paint, Souderton couldn’t get its offense flowing on its home court, as Upper Darby came to Souderton and extended its season with a 52-40 win.
Nzeh made his biggest impact in the first half, swatting away six Souderton shots as the Royals opened up a 28-15 advantage midway through. He scored six of his 11 points in the opening two quarters, adding in a three-point play in the third and a pair of foul shots in the fourth, all while collecting 13 rebounds (three offensive).
After Souderton was frustrated time and time again approaching the hoop in the first half, the hosts spent most of their second half attempting 3-point shots, unwilling to challenge Nzeh any further.
“Over the course of the year, we haven’t asked him to do a lot other than defend, get some rebounds, and score occasionally,” Miller said. “If he gets 10 points a game for us, that’s really big.”
Nzeh’s offensive output was part of a balanced attack from Upper Darby (12-11), the No. 19 seed in the 24-team district field. Junior guard A.J. Tucker matched Nzeh for the team lead with 11, while senior guards Mo Kante and Iyan Joshuasville chipped in nine apiece. Kante and Joshuasville combined for seven key fourth-quarter points to help the Royals hold off the hosts, who popped in 19 points in the third quarter thanks to four 3-pointers, but only managed six in the final frame.
“We had three or four losses down the stretch by eight or nine points total. And every time we were in that position and didn’t win,” Miller said. “Anytime you come on the road and win against a well-coached team, it’s big for your program.”
No. 14 Souderton (13-10) got points from eight different players, paced by nine each from seniors Dominic Natale, and Jack Towsen plus junior Jason Price. Natale, a 6-3 wing forward and one of Souderton’s top players, had missed most of the season with an injury, and made an instant impact when he came off the bench to a loud cheer late in the first quarter, with a three-point play and 3-pointer.
“We played them last year and I loved (Natale)’s game, and the video we have, he played early [in the season] but didn’t play late,” Miller said. “So [when] he came out, that scared me, because I think he’s a really good ballplayer.
“He killed us last year; the difference for us this year is our big kid.”
Nzeh’s going to be taking hoops much more seriously this offseason, as he said he’ll be playing his summer ball with the New York Renaissance of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). Playing with the Rens, Nzeh will be in a program that includes a number of high-level future Division I players, including five-star 2021 forward Jonathan Kuminga.
“I’m pretty excited, especially for the competition,” he said. “They have big names like Jonathan Kuminga is over there, Roddy [Gayle], Chance Westry, so we’ll see how I can fit in there.”
First, though, he’ll try to help Upper Darby qualify for the PIAA Class 6A state playoffs for the second time in three years. A win over No. 3 Cheltenham on Tuesday would do it, as well as move Upper Darby into the district quarterfinals; even if they lose, they’ll get another chance to qualify in play-backs.
No matter what, Nzeh said he plans on running track in the spring, but his focus has changed.
Instead of concentrating on getting to college as a track athlete, he’ll be doing it as a basketball player.
“At first, I wasn’t too into it, I was like, basketball’s just another sport that I’m going to do,” he said. “But over the season, my love for basketball has really grown.
“I’m not going to quit track, but basketball’s going to be my main thing. See how far it can take me.”
Souderton: 12 | 3 | 19 | 6 | 40
Upper Darby: 13 | 15 | 8 | 16 | 52
Souderton: 14-30 FG (2-7 3PT), 22-29 FT
Upper Darby: 14-57 FG (6-28 3PT), 6-8 FT
Souderton: Natale 9, Price 9, Towsen 9, Kutzler 3, Reiner 3, Dougty 3, Uhrich 2, Hollick 2
Upper Darby: Tucker 11, Nzeh 11, Kante 9, Joshuasville 9, Cavanaugh 5, Dobbs 3, Kosh 3
District 1 6A First-Round Results
No. 24 North Penn 57, No. 9 Central Bucks West 46
No. 16 Council Rock South 62, No. 17 Abington 41
No. 13 Haverford High 34, No. 20 Ridley 28
No. 12 Central Bucks East 50, No. 21 William Tennent 49
No. 18 Downingtown East 46, No. 15 Conestoga 45
No. 10 Spring-Ford 58, No. 23 Wissahickon 56
No. 19 Upper Darby 52, No. 14 Souderton 40
No. 22 Plymouth-Whitemarsh 59, No. 11 Boyertown 53
District 1 6A Second-Round Matchups
No. 1 Methacton vs. No. 16 Council Rock South
No. 8 Pennridge vs. No. 24 North Penn
No. 4 Chester vs. No. 13 Haverford High
No. 5 Lower Merion vs. No. 12 Central Bucks East
No. 2 Garnet Valley vs. No. 18 Downingtown East
No. 7 Bensalem vs. No. 10 Spring-Ford
No. 3 Cheltenham vs. No. 19 Upper Darby
No. 6 Coatesville vs. No. 22 Plymouth-Whitemarsh