Uche Okafor, Baba Ajike form Camden Catholic's Nigerian connection

Camden Catholic juniors Baba Ajike (left) and Uche Okafor have a connection on and off the basketball court.

For Uche Okafor, adjustment to life in the United States has created some challenges regarding food.

The Camden Catholic junior, an exchange student from Nigeria who lives in the Nazareth House on the school’s campus, still can’t understand his schoolmates’ attraction to macaroni and cheese.

“I don’t get that,” Okafor said.

Okafor concedes that mashed potatoes have grown on him, after a slow start. But there’s a flip side, too. Okafor gets a “taste of home” regularly from teammate Baba Ajike’s mother, Adekemi, a Nigerian native.

“I miss the food so much,” Okafor said of the cuisine in his native country. “But Baba’s mom, she makes me a rice dish all the time. I love it. It makes me feel like I’m home.”

Okafor and Ajike combined for 23 points and 17 rebounds Thursday night to power Camden Catholic to a 44-39 victory over St. Joseph of Metuchen in the Non-Public South A title game at Brick Memorial High School.

Camera icon Elizabeth Robertson/Staff photographer
Camden Catholic junior Baba Ajike hugging coach Matt Crawford after the Irish won the Non-Public South A title.

The two rangy juniors have been mainstays for Camden Catholic (23-6), which will meet defending champion Don Bosco Prep (28-2) in the state championship game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Toms River North.

Both athletes say their success on the hardwood stems in large part from their connection off the court.

“That’s my brother,” Ajike said of Okafor.

Ajike was born in the United States. He was raised in Willingboro but has lived in Cherry Hill since the fifth grade. He is of Nigerian heritage, as his mother and father, Olumide, were born in the African nation.

That made for an instant rapport with Okafor, who arrived at Camden Catholic in the summer of 2015 by following the path blazed by another Nigerian exchange student, Demola Onifade, a basketball standout for the Irish who is a senior at Delaware State.

“We have that connection,” Ajike said. “He’s Nigerian; I’m Nigerian. We’re together all the time. We play basketball together all year around.”

Camera icon Chip Fox/Staff photographer
Uche Okafor (right) and Baba Ajike of Camden Catholic embracing after a season-opening win at Eastern.

Ajike and Okafor play for Team Speed, an AAU program run by Cherry Hill attorney Rob DePersia, whose son Mike is a junior star for the Haddonfield basketball team that will compete in the Group 2 state final Sunday.

Team Speed’s assistant coach and academic adviser, Dr. Earl Pearsall, has helped facilitate the arrival in the Philadelphia area of Nigerian exchange students such as Onifade and Okafor.

“I was excited when Coach Earl told me that we had another player coming over,” Ajike said. “I never met him [Okafor] before, but I knew we would have that connection.”

Okafor and Ajike both played for the Camden Catholic varsity as freshmen, showing vast potential. Last season, Ajike developed into a third-team All-South Jersey player while Okafor sat out with a leg injury.

This season, the pair have combined to power the Irish to their first sectional title since 2010.

The 6-foot-5 Ajike averages 14.6 points and is a top rebounder and defender. Ajike scored 20 in a 68-65 overtime victory over two-time defending sectional champion St. Augustine on Monday night, including a three-point play in the extra session.

In Thursday night’s win over St. Joseph, Ajike had 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“Baba is a player who seems to get stronger as the season goes along,” Camden Catholic coach Matt Crawford said.

The development of the 6-foot-6 Okafor has been instrumental in a late-season surge in which Camden Catholic has won 10 straight games.

On Thursday, Okafor led the Irish in scoring with 13 points, also grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots.

“Even shots he doesn’t block, he intimidates the shooter who comes inside,” Crawford said. “He’s such a force inside. He’s getting better every day.”

Okafor said his connection with Ajike and Ajike’s parents has been vital to his transition to living 5,320 miles from home.

“His parents are so nice to me,” Okafor said. “His mom is always making me food. It’s like a taste of home away from home.”

Non-Public A state final

Camden Catholic (23-6) vs. Don Bosco Prep (28-2)

Saturday, 2 p.m., at Toms River North High School

Camden Catholic’s road to the final: Beat Bishop Ahr, 69-27; St. Augustine Prep, 68-65 (OT); and St. Joseph Metuchen, 44-39.

Previous state titles: 5 (1941, 1942, 2001, 2003, 2010).

Camden Catholic players to watch: Junior forward Baba Ajike (14.6 points), junior center Uche Okafor (9.6 points), senior swingman Dom Dunn (14.7 points), junior guard Pat Corbett (6.1 points), sophomore guard Hakim Melvin (3.1 points).

Don Bosco Prep’s road to the final: Beat Union Catholic, 88-47; Bergen Catholic, 71-48; and St. Peter’s Prep, 60-59 (2 OT).

Previous state titles: 3 (1966, 1970, 2017)

Don Bosco Prep players to watch: Senior forward Marcellus Earlington (St. John’s recruit, 21.1 points), senior guard Ron Harper (Rutgers recruit, 19.5 points).

Fast fact: Camden Catholic has won 10 games in a row.

Pick: Don Bosco Prep, 48-46.