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Erie CC's Achiuwa heading to St. John's; Star from Nigeria likes up-tempo pace

Opportunity brought God's Gift Achiuwa from his home in Port Harcourt, River States, Nigeria, to Buffalo to play junior college basketball. And that's what will take him to New York City next year to continue his education and athletic career with St. John's.

Achiuwa made his announcement Thursday at the Flickinger Athletic Center, where he spent the last two years starring for the Erie Community College Kats.

The 6-foot-9 forward wanted to compete in the Big East on one of the biggest stages in college basketball.

"The main thing about St. John's is when I went for a visit, I liked their coaching staff and I liked their style of play," Achiuwa said. "They play very high-tempo basketball and that's the way I was taught to play. They have very good and experienced coaches. Also New York City is a great place. Madison Square Garden is the biggest stage."

While ECC coach Alex Nwora would have liked Achiuwa to stay closer to Western New York, he understand's the young forward's desire to differentiate himself among the country's best players. St. John's, ranked 18th, finished 21-12 after losing to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

"He doesn't want to be a big fish in a small pond," Nwora said. "He wants to be a big fish with the other big fish and then dog it out to find a way to stand out."

Achiuwa has found ways to stand out in his 18 months in Buffalo. As a freshman, he averaged 13.1 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, leading ECC to a 27-2 record and earning NJCAA third team All-America honors.

This year, he ranked ninth in the country in scoring (22.3 ppg), 10th in rebounding (11.7) and 17th in blocks (2.2), was the Region III Player of the Year, a first team All-America and he paced ECC to a fourth-place finish in the national tournament.

"Gift is a talented frontline player who possesses tremendous size, strength, speed and skill. He is an ideal fit for our baseline-to-baseline attacking style of play," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin in a news release. "The maturity Gift gained from two years of junior college basketball with a combined 55-6 record will make him a nice complement to what will be the youngest roster in the country next season."

Achiuwa credits Nwora and assistant coach Lazare Adingono with helping him improve his game.

"I liked the work. I like to work really hard," Achiuwa said. "Coach pushes you really hard all the time. He's trying to make you a better person.

"I look back on my decision coming over here and I'm very, very happy I made that decision. Actually, it wasn't that hard because I know here I would have so many opportunities."

"He put in a lot of work in the offseason and got his body where it is now. He has a pro body," Nwora said. "I think he outworked everybody. That's one thing with him -- he's going to be a workhorse. They're going to really value his work ethic. Win or lose, he's going to stand out.

"He wants to be the first on the court. He wants to be the fastest. As big as he is, he wins most of our sprints in practice. A guy his size, he can defend one through five. Off the court, he's a great kid and he's very, very religious. He knows the line not to cross."

The religious affiliation of St. John's, a Catholic school in the Vincentian tradition, was one of the selling points for Achiuwa.

"I told my parents about my decision and they were really happy for me and St. John's is a religious school, it's a Catholic school, and my parents liked that I decided to go there," Achiuwa said.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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