Atanga McCormick shows many sides
Versatility proving beneficial to Lord Jeffs and title quest
HOLLAND, Mich. -- She plays the violin. Paints pictures for her teammates. Speaks four languages, one of them West African Pidgin.
And Lem Atanga McCormick can also hit the 3, crash the boards, pick your pocket and block your shot. Like last week, when defending-champion Amherst crushed Emmanuel 84-61 to advance to its fourth consecutive NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship.
In that game, the 6-foot McCormick led the Lord Jeffs with 19 points, including 4 of 5 on 3-pointers, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots. It catapulted Amherst (31-0) into a national semfinal matchup at 5 p.m. Saturday against the other undefeated team left in the field at Hope College, George Fox (31-0).
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“I can’t say enough about Lem,” senior teammate Caroline Stedman said. “She is probably one of the biggest keys to our success. As a post player she has great moves inside, but she can also take it outside and hit the 3. Also, defensively she’s been big for us. We wouldn’t be here without her.”
But it’s McCormick’s off-the-court persona that makes her so special on a team riding a 50-game winning streak.
“She’s unbelievable. She’s probably one of the most well-rounded people on our team. She’s extremely smart, she can sing, she plays the violin, she’s an unbelievable artist, she does it all. You can’t say enough about her.”
Have it noted that McCormick would have played in the college orchestra, “but they practiced at the same time we did.”
She still has time to paint, “usually portraits for my friends if they bribe me. Usually it’s pencil or acrylics, sometimes oil. It’s a little side business,” she joked.
None of which surprises her fifth-year coach, GP Gromacki.
“She’s one of a kind,” said Gromacki, whose team is trying to win back-to-back DIII titles for the first time since Washington University (Mo.) won four in a row from 1998-2001.
“What people see with Lem is the player on the court. Obviously you can see that she’s graceful and has a lot of talent and does a lot of things well with a basketball, but they don’t see what kind of person she is. They see her smile and playing hard but they don’t see all the rest.”
All the rest is quite a story.
McCormick, then Lem Atanga, was born in New York to parents from Cameroon, who migrated to the United States. Her father died when she was young and her mother, since remarried, now lives in South Africa. Which explains her name:
“Atanga is from my father and McCormick is from my step dad, so I just kind of squished them all together. Now it’s Atanga McCormick. Lem is from my full name, Awah-Lem, so I just chopped off the first half of that.”
Along the way she moved from New York to Cameroon, to England, to East Africa and then to Chicago, where Jim McCormick worked. Lem became a hoops star at Loyola Academy. As an aside, her prep teammate, Michelle Bilek, is a junior guard for Illinois Wesleyan, which plays St. Thomas in the other semifinal.
“I was a year younger and she would always look out for me,” Bilek said. “We became good friends. We haven’t talked as much in college because we’re so far away and we’re so busy with basketball, but it’s so nice to see her and we’re so happy for each other.”
McCormick had other college-basketball options, but Illinois Wesleyan admittedly didn’t have her in its radar.
“I wish she would have been,” IWU coach Mia Smith said with a smile.
Instead, McCormick committed to the Air Force Academy, but late in the recruiting process things didn’t work out.
“She was interested in Amherst, but we didn’t think we were going to get her,” Gromacki said.
“Last minute I decided I wanted to go to a small, liberal arts college and Amherst was a perfect fit,” McCormick said.
“I had stayed in touch with her here and there,” Gromacki said, “just to hang in there … And we caught a break and got her.”
This Amherst group of seniors, that includes Stedman (13.2 points per game), Kim Fiorentino (9.2 ppg), Shannon Finucane (6.3 ppg), Jackie Renner (4.7 ppg) and Livia Rizzo (1.4 ppg), has a Division III record of 124-6, including 76-1 at home and 19-3 in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s nice after a long season to get rewarded for playing hard,” McCormick said. “We’re all excited. It’s great for the younger kids to get the experience and all the seniors, we’re excited to be back here.”
McCormick who scores 11.3 points per game, averages 5.6 rebounds, is tied with freshman Megan Robertson with 39 blocks, and has 38 steals. Robertson, who scores 11.4 points a game, leads the Jeffs with 7.7 rebounds and has filled a tremendous void left by the loss last year of four seniors, including national player of the year Jaci Daigneault.
One thing McCormick hasn’t done is hit a game-winning shot. There’s not much call for that at Amherst, where the women have been challenged in only two games this season, a 63-59 victory at Bowdoin on January 20 and a 51-50 win at Colby the next night. Since then, the closest anyone has gotten to the Lord Jeffs is 12 points.
“Our team is explosive and can turn it on at any time,” Gromacki said.
Indeed, Amherst has outscored its opponents 75.2-46.0 this season and outrebounded them 45.7-35.5.
There are a number of ways that McCormick could say domination. She speaks English, but also French, the aforementioned West African Pidgin, “which is spoken along the west coast of Africa, and the dialect from my mom’s village, in Nkwen.”
Accordingly, you would have to imagine she is the team leader in the latest obsession for the Jeffs, the online word-guessing game called Catch Phrase.
“She brings a level of calm just by her demeanor and play,” Gromacki said. “People look to her in many different ways. A big block here, a big shot, hitting the big 3, she’s a poised player and plays her best basketball at NCAA tournament time.”