Ngongba Earns Big South Conference Coach of the Year Honor
When Radford University Head Women’s Basketball Coach Tajama Abraham Ngongba heard her name called out as “Big South Coach of the Year” during the end-of-the-year conference awards banquet, it came as a complete surprise. “I’m a high energy person,” she recalled. “It took every bit of my fiber just to keep from jumping up and down.”
That elation was not just a product of personal recognition. The former NCAA and WNBA star and St. Croix native was jubilant because the award spoke to her of so many different things: the character and performance of her players and coaches, the support of the Radford University administration for the woman’s basketball program, and the statement it made about the rising status of the program she leads.
Because make no mistake, after what she terms a couple of “very tough years,” RU’s women’s basketball program is back. “We’re going to be a powerhouse,” said Ngongba, who led the Highlanders to an 11-5 league record and the number two seed in the post-season tournament, which was the team’s highest since 2008.
Radford's 11 wins during the 2010-2011 conference season marked the most regular-season league wins the Highlanders have recorded since the 1993-94 season when Radford finished 12-4. It was a season filled with events like beating Liberty at home, a feat that had not been accomplished in 15 years.
“I am really happy that Taj was selected as Big South Coach of the Year,” said Athletic Director Robert Lineburg. “We performed very well in conference play this season and Taj was certainly deserving of this award. Our women’s basketball program is making a lot of progress and I am confident this program will be competing for championships on a consistent basis.”
Ngongba, who was named the Highlanders head coach in 2008 following a blue-chip career as a player and a coach, credits her team and her staff.
“It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by the other coaches in such a respectful way, especially as I am the youngest coach in the league,” said Ngongba, who has spent the last couple of years rebuilding a program that has historically been viewed as a force to be reckoned with in its conference.
She’s excited about the excellent recruiting class she signed this year, with five new prospects expected for next season. Her views on recruiting shed some insight into her leadership style and the life experiences that have shaped it.
“When we recruit, we recruit to connect,” she said, adding that her recruits know that when they come to Radford they are going to get a great degree, and they are going to play in an environment where “we put the we before the me.”
But her deep concern for her players’ welfare does not mean there are no high expectations to meet. “I’m someone who always sets the bar exceptionally high for myself and for my program,” said Ngongba, who chose to play for the George Washington University Colonials.
For her, success boils down to digging deep inside to find the “will” to perform at a level you never thought possible. Despite the fact that she was double and triple-teamed by defenders consistently throughout her four years of play, she set - and still holds – GWU’s all-time scoring record of 2,134 points.
Her career in basketball might never have been, were it not for the work of a different kind of force of nature. When she was 14, Hurricane Hugo, at Category 5 status, blew through the Virgin Islands, destroying her family home and laying waste to the countryside.
She, her four siblings, mom, dad, and grandmother took shelter from the storm in an eight by twelve-foot commercial refrigerator in the kitchen of a Boy Scout camp her father ran on St. Croix, periodically opening the door to let in fresh air. The family escaped the destruction and settled in Hampton, Va., where local high school coaches, and soon local newspapers, started buzzing about the amazing high school basketball prospects that had just moved into town.
Basketball, you see, runs in the family. Her father, Ralph Abraham, played for famed coach Lou Carnasecca, at St. John’s, in the 70’s. Her two brothers, Faisal Abraham and Nsilo Abraham, ended up playing NCAA ball at Marquette University, and George Mason University, respectively.
The family arrived in Hampton with very little except their lives, and Ngongba remembers Carnasecca doing something that made a lifetime impression; knowing the family’s circumstances, he sent two boxes of St. John’s clothing to the family in Hampton, where they were beginning to rebuild their lives.
“To think that Coach Carnasecca still ‘had my father’s back,’ thirty years later, that was something special,” recalled Ngongba. It was a lesson in coaching and relationships that has stayed with her.
“I see players in the offices of my coaches talking about ‘real things’ that are going on in their lives,” she said. “There’s a lot of love here for the players. This generation needs to know that they are heard and they are loved and that their voices matter.”
The head coach and her team are also generous with the community, volunteering with the Special Olympics, the Radford Clothing Bank, and participating in sports programs at local schools. For the past three years, they have also hosted Fun Fit Day, a day-long event of games and activities for area children.
"Community service is an important part of our program," said Ngongba. "I am very proud of my players’ commitment to assist others in need."
Ngongba came to RU following a variety of coaching assignments, a stellar college career, and professional basketball experience with the Sacramento Monarchs and the Detroit Shock of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Following a year of European play with the Nice Cavigal in Nice, France, Ngongba began her coaching career, serving as a member of the coaching staff that helped the U.S. Virgin Islands Women's Junior National Team win a gold medal in the 2001 Caricom Junior Basketball Championships in Nassau, Bahamas.
She then spent two years as an assistant coach at the University of Richmond, and two years as an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, before returning to George Washington University as an assistant coach from 2004-2008, where she focused on recruiting, the development of post players, scouting and organizing the team's pre-season and summer conditioning workouts.
As a student-athlete, Ngongba was named a Kodak first-team All-American in 1997 after leading the Colonials to a 28-6 record and the East Regional Final in the NCAA Tournament, and she was named to the 1997 East Regional All-Tournament Team.
Ngongba was also a Kodak Honorable Mention All-American and a Basketball Times Honorable Mention All-America selection as a junior in 1996. She earned the 1997 Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year Award and was the conference's Rookie of the Year in 1994. She was a unanimous first-team all-league selection in 1996 and 1997 and earned second-team all-conference honors in 1995. Ngongba was selected to the Atlantic 10 All-Tournament Team in 1997 and was the tournament's MVP in 1996 when GWU claimed the A-10 crown.
She married former GWU men's basketball player Patrick Ngongba in 2003 and the couple have a daughter, Naja, and son, Patrick II. She and her family try and visit St. Croix once a year, where the hard-driving, high performance head coach says she has no trouble at all switching back to “island time,” until, of course, its time to get back to the court and back to business.