Archdeacon: Central State’s ‘queen of basketball’ to be inducted into FIBA Hall of Fame

It’s good to know some things have not changed.

The first time I interviewed Mame Maty Mbengue was just over 33 ½ years ago. She was the sophomore star of the Central State women’s basketball team and I remember we had just taken a seat in the upper stands of Beacom Lewis Gym one day after practice, when players from the men’s team walked in down below, talking loud and razzing each other,

When they saw her, they lowered their voices and paid her respect, either with a nod or a wave or just their sudden silence.

Although she was just 20 then, she said back home in Senegal – where she’d already won a gold medal at the FIBA Women’s AfroBasket Championship (the top hoops tournament for the entire continent) and was one of the first young women from her nation to get a college basketball scholarship – she was called by some “The Queen of Basketball.”

Now she’s 54 and has three children: Bineta (17), Moussa (14) and Aissata (12.) Until recently stepping down, she had a long career with the basketball federation in Senegal.

The other day she said she no longer plays basketball now.

And yet she’s still roundball royalty. In fact, more so than ever.

Today in Mies, Switzerland, she will be enshrined in the FIBA Basketball Hall of Fame. She is the first African woman ever to be so honored.

When FIBA secretary general Andreas Zagklis made the announcement, he noted Mbengue’s long career as an international player and said: “Your many achievements have contributed greatly to the growth of our sport in your country and around the whole world.”

Mbengue is part of the impressive induction class that includes WNBA and Olympics legend Lisa Leslie and heralded University of Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who coached the U.S. national team to three Olympic gold medals and two World Cup titles in his six years as head coach.

At the same time he guided his UConn teams to a record 11 NCAA titles from 1995 to 2016.

Other inductees – in a year when FIBA made women’s basketball its primary focus – include Australian star Robyn Maher, Italian Catarina Pollini and Lithuanian Jurgita Streimikyte and three coaches: Maria Planas of Spain, Antonio Barbosa of Brazil and the late Milan “Ciga” Vasojevic from Serbia.

“It’s a pleasure and a great honor to be the first African woman in the hall of fame,” Mbengue said from Switzerland on Monday.

There has been speculation on social media in Senegal that the nation’s president, Macky Sall, will honor her in the coming days.

And he should.

She has represented her nation well for decades.

At Central State, the 6-foot-2 Mbengue became the school’s first NAIA All-American. By the time her Marauders career was done, she was a two-time All American, had scored 2,055 points and had become the cornerstone of an era of women’s basketball dominance at CSU, leading Coach Theresa Check’s teams to the first three of what would become a record 13 consecutive trips to the NAIA national tournament.

Back home she led Senegal to five AfroBasket golds and four times she was named the MVP of the tournament. She was a two-time Africa Games gold medalist and was the veteran leader of the Senegal women’s team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

“I’m really happy for her,” Check said. “I’m just honored to have been her coach and that Central State played a small part in her growth as a player, an athlete and a young woman.”

‘She had a great sense of pride’

Check said Mbengye ended up at Central Sate thanks to then CSU president Dr. Art Thomas.

“Dr. Thomas was responsible,” she said. “He had travelled to Africa and seen her play and he was really impressed. He persuaded her and her family, and a couple of other young women and men to come to Central State and get an education.”

Mbengue arrived before the others in the summer of 1987 and, as she recalled the other day, she said she initially had a tough time adjusting.

Although she spoke French and Wolof, she said: “My English was so bad and it was my first time, as a young girl, to be away from my family.”

That day long ago in the Beacom Lewis Gym, she spoke in more detail about those early days at CSU:

“I cried for days and days. Every night I would write a letter home, begging my father to let me return. The only comfort came when I put on a tape of music from home. I’d dance all by myself in my room and I’d feel so happy.

“But when the music stopped, I cried again.”

She worked hard to adjust. She found an African teacher in Dayton and said she used to carry a dictionary with her around campus and tried to learn a new word each day.

Looking back now, she remembered her teammates being like sisters and the coaches – Check and assistant Pat Tramble – being big influences in her life.

“She learned quickly and she had a real sense of pride being here,” Check said.” She wanted to represent her family and her country as best she could. She put aside any issues she had about being thousands of miles from home and just became very determined to be a great student and play great basketball,

“Her teammates really bonded with her and the other Senegalese players, too. It became a really great experience for all of the players and for me, too.”

‘Automatic under the basket’

Her senior year, Mbengue averaged 23.2 points per game – 19th best in the nation – and won All America honors for the second time.

“She was just so strong inside,” Check said. “It was really easy for me to insist she touch the ball each possession. She was pretty automatic under the basket.”

“She got it all started for us and played a huge role in the women’s basketball program being dominant back then.”

One of Mbengue’s biggest contributions to the CSU basketball program came after she had graduated and move back to Senegal.

She convinced her cousin, Marieme Lo – who had grown up in the same house with her for five years – that Central State was a good place for African athletes.

Lo ended up becoming the Marauders all-time leading scorer with 2,580 points, added 1,268 career rebounds and at the end of her senior season she was named the NAIA Player of the Year.

Also a top student, Lo went on to get her master’s degree at Wright State and lives with her family in Fairborn.

In 2000 both Mbengue and Lo played for a hastily-assembled Senegal team at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

I remember interviewing both of them there after Senegal had suffered a 68-32 loss to Slovokia.

There had been four other routs before that, too.

Lo spoke for both of them when she admitted: “It’s been horrible. Back home in Senegal the say people are criticizing us. They said we play like little girls. In the newspaper, they said they don’t know us.”

Today, Mbengue is being saluted in all the newspapers in Senegal and across social media platforms, too.

It’s good to know some things have changed.

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