Ajavon brings smiles, Final Four trip to Scarlet Knights
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It's one of the stories so many in our nation could tell. Remember that "Schoolhouse Rock" spot called "The Great American Melting Pot," which explains how we became the people we are here in the United States? Even when you were a little kid watching it, didn't it make you proud?
Rutgers guard Matee Ajavon can tell that story.
She was the Greensboro Regional's Most Outstanding Player, scoring 20 points Monday night in the fourth-seeded Scarlet Knights' 64-45 victory over No. 3 seed Arizona State. She also had 20 points in Rutgers' upset of No. 1 Duke on Saturday.
A 5-foot-8 junior out of Newark, N.J., Ajavon has scored 20 or more points in seven of her last 10 games. Talk about the right time to get hot. Ajavon -- who's averaging 12.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals -- has led Rutgers into the program's second Final Four.
Remember, Ajavon started the season on the sidelines, not being able to work out all summer. It was the second summer in a row that stress-fracture problems -- first in her right foot and then in her left shin -- kept her from summer workouts.
"I was missing out on USA Basketball and basically sitting home doing nothing," she said of her past two summers. "There was school, so I was able to work on that. As far as basketball, there was a point where it became depressing."
Ajavon returned to the court this season for the Dec. 4 game at home against Duke. She said she didn't even know she was going to play for sure until she was put in the game. She had 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting but was nowhere near in "Rutgers shape," as she put it. Duke won by 40.
"That loss did something to me," she said. "It made me rethink a lot about myself and if I was even going to be able to make it through this season. But I persevered and worked through it."
It shouldn't be a surprise that she found that strength. Because Ajavon's arduous journey to the Final Four didn't just begin this season or even when she came to Rutgers. It really started when she got on an airplane bound for the United States in 1992. Ajavon and her two older sisters left what had to that point been their home: Monrovia, Liberia (in western Africa). Her grandmother had been her primary caretaker, and Ajavon cried when she left her.
She was so scared on the plane and physically ill from some turbulence that she threw up. She had no idea where she was going. She was only 6 years old.
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"But I also remember the smile on my mother's face when she came to get us," Ajavon said.
Patience Wilson had come to the United States a few years earlier. She had to leave her own children for a time to take care of others.
"I know it was difficult, but my mom had our future in her mind," Ajavon said. "She wanted to make a better life for us. She stayed with a white family in their home and took care of their kids. She made enough money to come and get us so we could have an opportunity to live, basically.
"My mom is a nurse's aid now; she still works at taking care of people. She is my hero. She didn't have the opportunity to go to school like I did. My sisters and I are fulfilling her dreams. She said she is going to get a ticket [to Cleveland and the Final Four]. She doesn't care about work or anything, she'll find a way. She wants to be there."
Ajavon's grandmother was able to come to the United States about eight years ago, too. Still, Ajavon has a lot of family members in Liberia.
Ajavon is majoring in African-American studies and someday wants to be a teacher.
"I think I have a lot to say, through studying and learning more about my heritage," she said. "I know what I'd say is repeating what a lot of people might say, but it's really the truth. I would tell kids to just pursue your dreams, whether you're an American child or child from anywhere. Don't let anything stop you."
Even battling her injuries, at the times when she felt the most down, Ajavon has been the team's uplifting spirit. She makes everybody laugh.
"Her sense of humor keeps the atmosphere very light, especially at times when it's very tense," teammate Essence Carson said. "She can be the icebreaker, and that helps a lot. Coming into pressure situations, you can be uptight or you can take it too lightly. She gives us a great balance. And that's something a team needs to have."
Ajavon said her motto is that you can't take life too seriously because of how serious it really is.
"I like to put smiles on people's faces and brighten up other people's days," she said. "Because you never know for sure what someone else is going through. They might just need a smile."
And who gives her one when she needs it?
"My teammates pick me up, and my mother -- she calls me every day," Ajavon said. "She's always told me things would work out. And look where we are now."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.