Four years ago, in December of 2018, Onye Ezeakudo was a freshman at Pitt who was dying to try out for the basketball program, which was in its first year of the Jeff Capel era.
Ezeakudo, a two-year starter at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, had multiple scholarship offers on the table when he graduated high school. However, he wanted to come play for a bigger program, Pitt, and opted to try and walk-on to the team.
“My first year, we had open tryouts, and I don’t think we kept anyone, but he [Ezeakudo] caught our eye then,” Capel said back in March. “I think we started using him as a practice player, and then he was doing really well, showing up, and just doing a heck of a job for us. We decided to have him become a full member of the team.”
In his freshman year with the team, Ezeakudo appeared in just two games, recording one rebound, three assists, and one steal across the two games.
His next season, he played in 13 games, scoring his first college points against Arkansas Pine-Bluff. However, those were the only two points he would score all year, due to an ankle injury that kept him out for the last ten contests.
Then came last year, his junior season. In a shortened season due to COVID-19 outbreak, Ezeakudo put up the best numbers of his career. He played an average of five minutes per game, hit all three of his three-pointers throughout the year, and eventually earned his first start of his career against Clemson. Ezeakudo was making a difference on a Pitt team that was plagued by occasional poor efforts from the point guard position.
Fast forward to December of 2021.
A senior bioengineering major, Ezeakudo has earned everything in his time at Pitt, both in the classroom and in the gym.
“Like I said after the Virginia loss, O, I am so proud of him,” teammate John Hugley said about Ezeakudo. “He is knocking down big shots, having to guard people full court. He’s not a pushover, man. He’s not a pushover at all. He’s going to give you hell every night. You’re not going to make any easy moves on him.”
Onyebuchi Ezeakudo has been doing excellent work defensively so far on Nelly Cummings. Been effectively shadowing him the entire night
— Craig Meyer (@CraigMeyerPG) December 10, 2021
This season, Ezeakudo has already played more than 4x the amount of minutes that he did in any previous season with the Panthers, averaging 17.6 minutes per game and starting three games. The 6-foot guard has hit 8 of his 16 three-point attempts, grabbed 14 rebounds, dished out 14 assists, and scored 29 points.
“I agree with John,” fellow guard Jamarius Burton added. “O is not going to take any plays off. Prior to the season, his biggest goal was to just contribute to the team, and he’s been doing that. Showing up each and every day, playing hard, and giving us everything that he’s got. I think that’s the biggest thing, and we love having him as part of our team.”
Some of Ezeakudo’s biggest plays of the season have come in intense moments down the stretch of games, where Capel is not afraid to play him, even though he is a walk-on.
Against Virginia, he hit perhaps the biggest shot of his career with under a minute remaining, to give the upset-seeking Panthers the lead.
Onyebuchi Ezeakudo drains the three to give @Pitt_MBB the late lead!! 👌
— ACC Men's Basketball (@accmbb) December 4, 2021
Then came Saturday’s game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, a game which Pitt’s entire team will remember for the rest of their individual careers.
Ezeakudo played 18 minutes in the triumphant upset victory and delivered one of the strongest stat lines for a walk-on role player that is possible. That game, he drained a three for the Panthers, who had been struggling to score all game. He controlled the ball, not turning it over once, in a game in which the Panthers struggled to do so as a team. On top of all that, he grabbed three rebounds and dished out two assists, capping off a great performance off the bench.
“He’s a pest,” Hugley went on. “A player I could compare him to is Pat Bev. Just loves defense. He hits big shots too. In that St. John’s game, he hit a big three. He hit a big three for us. I am very proud of him from where he’s came. When I used to come up in my younger days and just see him, seeing the growth in him, I am proud of him.”
Ezeakudo and the Panthers will take on Jacksonville on Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 2 p.m.