It’s been a long trying year for Yemi Oyefuwa, fighting back from the surgery that left her languishing on the sidelines. Pulling on a Great Britain jersey – and getting back on the court – can’t come soon enough.

“I’ve got my legs back,” she smiles. Going under the knife last summer to repair a meniscus tear in her knee was traumatic enough. Coping with her shift to the fringes of the line-up at the University of Maryland only added to the pain.

Wary of any recurrence, the coaching staff there opted on the side of caution. Their London-born centre had to kick her heels, frustrated and, by her own admission, forlorn. “It shatters your confidence,” she reveals. “It’s very competitive at Maryland. Everyone’s fighting for playing time. I had to stay positive and tell myself: ‘my time will come.’ “

Back on national duty at training camp in Surrey is like a fresh beginning, she says. “I feel my time has come now.”

Oyefuwa, a product of the Wandsworth Sting junior programme, will take it one step at a time as Tom Maher’s squad begin the countdown in earnest towards the Eurobasket finals with a four-nation warm-up tournament in Guildford, which begins on Thursday. After two weeks of gruelling twice-daily practices, the friendlies will be a welcome respite from the grind.

Without strength in depth, the staff have taken extra care. “We only have three post players so we have to make sure they stay healthy,” acknowledges assistant, Vanessa Ellis. Which means, for the soon-to-be Terrapins senior, a note of caution is again being sounded.

“The coaches have been great,” Oyefuwa states. “We’re doing two-a-days and if I ever feel I’m on that bridge, or on that cliff, and I feel my knee is going to fall off, it’s acceptable for me to sit and ice while watching and listening. They’re very understanding.”

Johannah Leedham is another who has been ordered to progress at her own pace. Rebounding from her own injuries, the former WNBA Draftee will not play this week, despite coming through an intensive rehab assessment on Monday. “We hope to get her on court in Turkey or Latvia,” Ellis confirms. “The medical team are keeping a close eye on her.”

Sympathy readily comes from Oyefuwa, who was forced to sit out last summer’s qualification campaign. Having been out of the international scene for two years, she concedes there was a re-adjustment to Maher’s tough approach.

“But I came in with the mentality that I had a role even if I didn’t end up getting picked. I have that mentality that I’m going to do something. It’s all mental sometimes. There are times when I’m tired or my knee hurts but I have a goal and I have to reach it.

“The first day I was very nervous because I knew the coaches would be looking at me and asking if I’ve grown in the year away. I’m always eager to learn and I look at myself as a sponge. I have no problems asking questions or running to the sidelines to write down some plays in my notebook. I’ve come in and just tried. All I can give is my best.”

A dancer in her teens, having rhythm helps on the floor. “I still like to bust some moves,” she giggles. Mainly post-game, admittedly. Thin and lanky, Oyefuwa’s mentors have praised her quickness but advised her to toughen up. “I maybe need to be a bit rougher and less upright and some of that is because of the posture I was taught to find for so many years of my life,” she acknowledges.

She likes a battle. Growing up, her Dad was a Manchester United fan. The contrarian, she chose Arsenal instead. “We were always fighting about it when I was younger,” she laughs. Even now, that’s why there’s a 14 on her back. “I was a huge fan of Thierry Henry so I stole his number.”

The Frenchman was known for his resilience under pressure, as well as finding the net with the greatest of ease. Oyefuwa’s place in the final squad will surely depend on displaying those similar traits.

A by-stander for too long, she will relish the fray in Surrey. Maher will be watching on, hoping that his side has heeded his words and is ready to put them into practice in their initial tune-up ties.

“We have to make sure we stay composed and not become individuals if things go wrong,” Oyefuwa declares.

“We’re coming from different places: some from America some from Europe, some from universities here. It’s easy when things go against you to think: ‘well, I’ll just try this and see how it works – even if it’s away from the game plan.’

“Every practice, we’ve progressed and got better. If we learn from every mistake, and remember basketball is a game of runs, I think we should be fine.”

Standard Life Invitational (Surrey Sports Park, Guildford)

Thursday 19: 
Great Britain v Germany (2.30pm),
Latvia v Cuba (8pm)

Friday 20: Latvia v Germany (2.30pm), 
GB v Cuba (7pm)

Saturday 21: Germany v Cuba (1pm),
GB v Latvia (4.30pm)

Ticket Info

pic: Dan Wooller/

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