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Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

NCAA Champion Laeticia Amihere aims to inspire

Laeticia Amihere is a champion. When the University of South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the UConn Huskies 64-49  in this year’s NCAA Women’s Championship game, the Mississauga native and Gamecocks junior became a champion. After two torn ACL injuries, surgeries, and the subsequent recoveries, Amihere’s patience was rewarded. Winning, as it turns out, feels amazing.

“It feels kind of surreal, just looking at all the hard work we put in, finally accomplishing [it],” Amihere said. “We came in with such high expectations, you know, being the number one draft class recruiting class. Knowing we have a goal and to finally be able to accomplish that goal… it’ll be a couple months before [this feeling] dies down.”

Shortly after South Carolina’s win, a clip showing the team racing on court after the final buzzer sounded to celebrate with their teammates went viral. Amihere, so overwhelmed by the moment, sprinted on court, and then kept sprinting, passing her teammates huddled together on court.

“[The memes] are so funny,” Amihere said. “I don’t know [where I was going]. The buzzer went off and it’s all a blur in my mind. All I know is I was running around, and then I finally found my teammates and then we all started celebrating together. I’ve been seeing so many people making different videos about it.”

In 2020, South Carolina won their final 26 games of the season, and were ranked at the top of the AP and coaches’ polls when the season abruptly ended on March 12 due to the pandemic. In 2021, the team lost in the Final Four, after playing without spectators for much of the season. Getting to celebrate in front of their fans after such a long wait made the moment that much more special.

“Last year we didn't really get that fan experience, and obviously the first year, [in 2020] we didn’t get that experience at all,” Amihere said. “Being able to celebrate with our fans, just having so much excitement built around something that you watched when you were a child on TV, and now you’re finally in it, [was amazing. Our fans have a lot of passion. Even off the court, on Twitter and social media, the fans are really present.”

Despite the trials of the past two years, South Carolina’s goal of winning it all had never wavered.

“We knew from the beginning that we had the goal of winning a championship, and we knew we had the talent as well,” Amihere said. “I think when you come in with such high expectations for yourself, and also high expectations from others, I think it just makes us dial in a lot more. Not everybody has a team that they can say winning the national championship is the goal and like, anything short of that, is a failure. So the fact that we have such expectations, high expectations for ourselves, I think it made us just work harder together.”

Leading those high expectations while leading the team through the challenges of the past two seasons was head coach Dawn Staley who became the first Black coach to win numerous national championships. Staley first led South Carolina to a national championship in 2017.

“She's great,” Amihere said. “She's a great person as well. We're really cool off the court, but she's a player coach. She's played the game, she's been in these environments, so it's very easy to talk to her and understand where she's coming from. I love her, and I'm just so happy that I have her as a role model as well.”

Amihere points to group sessions where the team talked with each other as well as a life coach, every couple of months. In these sessions they would talk about what it was that was driving them individually to seek out this national championship.

“Not a lot of people know the background of my team and my teammates, a lot of us come from hard backgrounds and a lot of people’s “why” for winning a championship is really just pride and having it on your resumé. But the “why’s” for everybody on my team were so deep, it has such a deeper meaning to not only just winning a championship.”

After writing down and then discussing their individual reasons, Amihere says the collective desire to be successful in their pursuit became even stronger.

“We got closer in that moment, but we also wanted to win for each other, even more,” she said. “I remember just before the championships, I told my teammates, like let’s play for our “why’s”, let’s play for all those things that we wrote down.”

Amihere’s own “why” was to come through victorious after facing so many injuries and challenges along the way.

“I’ve been through a lot when it comes to injuries and the ups and downs of basketball,” the 6-foot-4 forward said. “I’ve been through a lot of trials. I’ve been injured. I’ve been trying to recover and get back to the top level.”

In addition to wanting to win for herself, Amihere wanted her story to be an inspiration for any young athlete going through injuries. She also wanted to join the list of Canadians who have won an NCAA championship.

“Just kind of putting on for Canada and my teammates because, you know, it's really rare,” she said. “I feel like it's just deeper than me. It's just being an inspiration for others.”

Amihere represented Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and was on the court when the Senior Women’s National Team qualified for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball Cup in Osaka, Japan this past February. She credits her time with the national team with helping to advance her game and prepare her for the NCAA Tournament.

“Playing with the national team and playing at the highest level that I can play at, you know, with the Olympics and the World Cup, [I’ve] definitely been able to translate everything I learned from there, [especially] the physicality of the game, and translated for these moments.”