Ypsilanti — Forward Anali Okoloji met Shannise Heady when both were student-athletes at Seton Hall. They grew into fast buddies and that friendship blossomed even more when both transferred to Eastern Michigan to continue their basketball careers.
After EMU’s 76-40 victory Tuesday night over Ohio University, Okoloji stood behind an interview table still in shock over the death of his friend. Heady was involved in a head-on collision early Sunday morning that sent shock waves throughout the entire EMU family, both athletes and non-athletes.
He wore a white T-shirt with her number 32 stitched in front as a final tribute.
“It kind of hit home hard. It hurt,” Okoloji said. “I actually could not believe it. I am still in shock. She was always a positive person and when you were feeling down she picked you up and her smile would make you feel better.”
He shook his head.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said.
The past three days has been almost as tough on the men as the women. After head coach Rob Murphy got the news from athletic director Heather Lyke he cancelled Sunday practice and told his players to go to the women’s dressing room and console their Eagle sisters.
They hugged and cried and shared stories about Heady that no one else knew about. It was one of those moments where real life became more important than sports. The women have been sequestered from the media but will make their first public appearance tonight when they play at Western Michigan. The Bronco athletic department plans a tribute for Heady.
Before the Ohio game the Convocation Center crowd stood for a moment of silence for Heady and her friend Jordan Hopkins, 23, a psychology student who also died in the crash. Many wore the 32 T-shirts.
Heady was a woman who brightened a room with her smile and was a regular visitor at varsity games whether it was football, basketball or soccer.
“She was a very special person, kind-hearted, loving, smart. You couldn’t ask for more in a child, you couldn’t,“ her mother, Shannise Rife, told ABC News Channel 7 in Chicago.
Murphy knew his team would not have total preparation for Ohio, a team that had won its last two games. But he thought the two teams needed one another more than a practice session. This was a woman that most of the team knew and loved and respected.
“It’s been tough,” Murphy said. “We are very close to the women’s basketball team. We share the same suite and have a great relationship with the team. We knew Shannise pretty good. Some of our players had a personal relationship with her. Any time you lose a family member, and she was a member of the Eagles family, it is tough.”
Murphy said that if the women need more love and support his players and coaching staff will be there for them.
There also was a game. It wasn’t much of one for an Eagles team (13-7 overall and 2-5 in the MAC) that really needed a victory. This team showed great promise with a victory over Michigan but lost some of its mojo when it lost an overtime game to Ball State because of a three-point shot and blew a 25-point lead to Miami, including a six-point advantage in the final 30 seconds.
Eastern refused to give the Bobcats (7-11, 2-5) a chance to breathe.
EMU placed three players in double figures. Scoring was led by Raven Lee with 19 points. Mike Talley added 16 points and seven assists and Ward Karrington added 12 points and seven rebounds.
The Eagles did two things really well: They ran the ball and finished strong. And they were pesky whenever the Bobcats worked the ball inside. If the big men were not blocking or altering shots then the little men were sneaking in and getting their hands on the ball. That led to 22.8 percent shooting for the Bobcats. They also had 18 turnovers. EMU shot 50 percent from the floor and blocked seven shots.
Eastern led 31-16 at the half and opened the second half with a 23-8 run to provide the final knockout and pushing the lead to 54-24.
“We did not allow them to get many clean looks,” Murphy said. “We wanted to play great defense and push the ball. We have a long way to go but this was a good win for us. We want to continue to get better.”