By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
With the season fast approaching, there’s less laughter among the Georgia Tech women’s basketball team because the Yellow Jackets are buckling with the Nigerian tag team of Liz Dixon and Elizabeth Balogun leading the way inside and out.
The Jackets are a fascinating study with six true freshmen and just three upper classmen among 13 scholarship student-athletes.
When Tech debuts in Sunday’s 2 p.m. exhibition game in McCamish Pavilion against Coastal Georgia, it will be impossible to miss Dixon, the 6-foot-5 post player from Memphis and Balogun, the 6-1 guard from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Chattanooga.
They were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school, and they anchor a Tech recruiting class that has been ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation.
And even though they both played high school ball in Tennessee, they barely knew each other before becoming roommates at Tech over the summer.
They began helping each other acclimate on The Flats. Dixon was born in the United States, yet her parents, Richard and Elizabeth, are Nigerian, and Balogun has been in the U.S. since seventh grade.
“It helped a lot because she understands what I’m saying. Sometimes, I say something in Nigerian words and she understands what I mean and it’s kind of funny,” Balogun said. “She understands me and she knows when I’m upset and when I’m not. She knows how to approach me when I’m in my mood.”
Although they’re no longer roommates, Tech’s tag teamers are in sync.
“We shared stories about how strict our parents were and all the things that we had to do when we were little,” Dixon said of the summer head start. “We’re going to be really, really good this year. We all know how to gel together.”
Balogun and Dixon never played against each other in high school, or even on the summer circuit. They met a couple years ago at a summer camp, at about the time Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph and her staff began recruiting them.
“Neither one of them were in the top 20 in the country when we started recruiting them. When they were juniors in high school, they were in the top 30 or 40 in the country, and about the time they committed, they were moving into the top 25,” Joseph said.
“By the time they signed with Georgia Tech, Elizabeth Balogun was top five in the country and Liz Dixon was top 20.
“We targeted them because they were great athletes, top 50 players in the country, and they had high academics. We know that Nigerians value education, and we felt like it was a very good fit for Georgia Tech.”
Balogun’s older brother, Ezekiel, preceded her in moving to the U.S., and is now a junior on the basketball team at North Florida. They both played at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, living with coaches.
“In seventh grade . . . I wanted to have a better education and better basketball and I told my dad I’m ready to come,” Elizabeth explained.
Mark Balogun agreed, and away his daughter went. He has visited from Nigeria, where he lives in Lagos with Elizabeth’s stepmother.
“My parents met him, and they think it’s like me having a sister on campus and it is because we’re so used to being around Nigerians back in Memphis,” Dixon said.
Dixon has family in metro Atlanta, and she and Balogun appear to be making themselves at home on The Flats.
“Liz Dixon is way more mature than her age. She wants to be a doctor. She’s very driven and knows exactly what she wants . . . she’s very focused,” Joseph said. “Elizabeth Balogun is very hard on herself. She’s a perfectionist . . .
“I’ve never had to ask either one of them for effort since they’ve been here. They work as hard or harder than everyone every single day.”
Balogun is not one to take days off, and the business administration major has plans.
“You’re going to make mistakes in life, but I don’t like making mistakes. I like to be perfect,” she said. “My goal is to own my own hotel. It’s just something . . . when I was like five, I liked to imagine myself having a hotel. I imagined myself being the boss. I used to act like I owned this business, and I bossed everybody around. ‘You do this and you do that.’”
Dixon and Balogun are unique as McDonald’s All-Americans, yet they’re not the first international players in Tech’s program by a long shot, and the Jackets have tapped pipelines before.
Graduate manager Antonia Peresson came from Italy and played four seasons for the Jackets, and countrywomen Francesca Pan, a junior, and Lorela Cubaj, a sophomore, followed. Freshman guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen is from Finland, and third-year sophomore Anne Francoise Diouf is Senegalese.
“I think I’ve had 28 international players in 15 years,” Joseph said. “Typically, once you get a player from one country and they have a good experience, you attract other players from that country . . . I think just the mixed nationalities on our team, the diversity, has helped them because we have so many players from different countries.”
Dixon and Balogun share more than their Nigerian heritage. They both envision big days for the Yellow Jackets.
“I think this team can be extremely good. I think if we play the way we know how to play, we could be a Sweet 16 team and that’s really good with a lot of freshmen on the floor,” Balogun said. “It always starts with defense.”
Dixon is planning on that.
“We’re going to be really, really good this year; we all know how to gel together,” she said with a smile. “Elizabeth’s deadly with her pull-up jumper, she shoots the ‘3’ and drives to the hole really well, and she’ll block your shot if you’re not careful.”