West Catholic coach Beulah Osueke says 'everything changed' when Akyra Murray joined team

Akyra Murray (far left) and friends at their high school graduation.

One look at the photograph is all one needs to see how much Akyra Murray and Beulah Osueke meant to each other.

The player, Murray, is sitting next to her proud West Catholic High School basketball coach, Osueke, as the senior signs a letter of intent to continue her career and education at Mercyhurst University in Erie.

Mutual admiration. Satisfaction. The culmination of all the hard work both put in to sit at that table in the first place.

All of those feelings shine through in the image, as the two are radiant and smiling, looking like they are sharing an inside joke.

"That's how it always was with Akyra," Osueke said Tuesday.

Reminders or just checking-in texts, phone calls with a specific purpose that turned into 35- to 45-minute conversations, defined the duo's relationship. They talked about the Connecticut women's basketball team, the 18-year-old's favorite players in the WNBA, and what it was like being a black woman in today's society, among other topics.

Osueke talked to Murray on Saturday, confirming that she wouldn't be at open gym later in the day. She also made sure the recent graduate was taking her summer workout program seriously.

Murray laughed, assuring the coach that she was. She always did what she said she would.

Two days later, Osueke got word that the 1,000-point scorer who was third in her graduating class was among those killed at Orlando's Pulse nightclub.

The scholarship and prospect of playing basketball at the next level didn't always seem possible for Murray. In fact, until she transferred to West Catholic and met Osueke in her junior year, playing college basketball wasn't something that Murray thought she could do.

"When you invest so much into somebody, you don't realize how much it is impacting you, benefiting you," Osueke said. "For somebody to believe in me and trust me as much as she did, and see her reach a goal she had, it makes me feel like a better person and that I'm worth leading a group of kids."

Murray led the Philadelphia Catholic League in scoring last season as the Burrs won the PIAA District 12 Class A championship and played in the state tournament.

All along the way, in one of the most challenging and competitive leagues in the state, the Southwest Philadelphia native consistently stepped up for her team.

"Last night I asked myself, 'Did I put too much pressure on her? Did I demand too much?' " Osueke said. "I'll never know the answer to that. But what I do know is that when I called on her number, called on her, she would respond. Sometimes she would have to drop 40 points. She just knew that she had to do it. I would tell her all the time, 'If not you, then who?' Especially her senior year, she put the team on her back."

It was all to make her parents, Albert and Natalie, proud, Osueke said, a notion that Murray mentioned often as her motivation. What would make them even more proud? The newer mentoring role Murray took on, taking young players under her wing with nightly phone calls and messages.

"My first year we lost every single game," said Osueke, who has been the head coach for three seasons. "I didn't have basketball players. I had girls that stumbled onto basketball. The instant that Akyra transferred to West Catholic, everything changed."

On Saturday, the Burrs will hold their regularly scheduled open gym from 5 to 7 p.m. Although Murray won't physically be there, her presence will be felt in the gym, by every one of her former teammates and coaches.

"I told them to tattoo her on their hearts," Osueke said.

One gets the sense that she's already there.