Iriafen found the perfect fit at Stanford
At a remarkably young age, Okikiola "Kiki" Iriafen identified complacency as an enemy to her progress. She committed to Stanford and Hall of Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer Aug. 7 because she knew that the school and basketball team would challenge her to keep developing in all aspects of her life.
Iriafen is one of the most decorated players in the country and is ranked No. 9 overall in her class by ESPN. She has started every game of the past three seasons at the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and has been admitted to Stanford University.
She is not confused about why she has been successful.
“I feel like I need to be pushed every day," she said in a phone interview with Cardinal Sports Report. "I can’t have a coach who will be soft on me. Coach Tara is an amazing coach. Yes, she’s a hard coach but she also cares about her players as well. I talked to a lot of players before I made my decision to understand the coaching staff.
“I don’t believe I can reach my full potential unless I have a coach who will try to get everything out of me.”
Iriafen was a "blank canvas" when she started high school, said Harvard-Westlake head coach Melissa Hearlihy. She had never played basketball before but Hearilhy got lucky and heard about the nearly six-feet tall daughter of Nigerian parents through a family friend.
One of Hearlihy's friends who is a club coach put Iriafen through a workout and Hearlihy poked her head in to watch the eighth grader. When Iriafen started a drill running up and down the court her potential was obvious.
"The minute she took off I’m like, ‘Here we go’. I literally got her as raw as she could be. She had not been influenced by anybody," Hearlihy remembers.
Iriafen applied to Harvard-Westlake and put together the application herself without any significant help from her parents, Hearlihy said. It was the first example of the quality of her work ethic and independence.
In high school girls basketball it can be easy for a tall and athletic player to dominate her competition without putting much effort into developing technique. Iriafen realized soon after she started playing that it was an easy trap to fall into.
“Ok, give me the ball and I’ll make a layup," she recalled about her early mindset. "I can’t be Ok with that. If I feel like I’m better than someone … I still need to play at an elite level in order for me to grow as well.”
Hearlihy brought in other Harvard-Westlake coaches who were about Iriafen's height (she is now 6-3) to compete against her in practice.
“Last year she had an epiphany that I’ve been waiting for," Hearlihy said. "She has played with her back to the basket for two and a half years, but I felt like she could move out to the perimeter and start to do some damage outside of the paint both offensively and defensively. That happened and I can see now that she has stepped up to that next level.”
Like many young basketball players, Iriafen was transfixed by the documentary series "The Last Dance" about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty. She realized that Jordan epitomized many of the qualities that her coaches were trying to get her to embrace.
"“There is not a finer human being on this earth," Hearlihy said of Iriafen, but when it was time to demand better of her teammates in practice, and sometimes be stern, Iriafen's motherly nature conflicted with that "killer instinct".
“Don’t be everyone’s friend when it’s time to play basketball," Hearlihy told her.
While Iriafen was mastering these lessons, college coaches across the country were offering her scholarships to continue her maturation on their teams. Her final group of schools was Stanford, Baylor, UCLA, UCONN and Notre Dame.
Stanford began recruiting Iriafen the summer before her junior year and she visited last fall.
“I fell in love with the campus. It’s just so beautiful. The girls on the team are so welcoming. I felt like I was a part of the team. We went out to dinner that night and we had conversations — it just flowed. I feel like the girls also did an amazing job welcoming me as well. After I left that visit I thought, ‘I can see myself at Stanford’.”
Iriafen joined one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Brooke Demetre is the headliner and is the No. 4 overall player in the country. Jzaniya Harriel is No. 52 overall and a combo guard. Elena Bosgana is a versatile 6-2 wing/forward from Greece who is regarded as one of the best players in Europe.
The four classmates already have regular Zoom meetings to build their relationships together. Demetre, Harriel and Iriafen are all Californians so they normally do the call at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. to accommodate the time difference for Bosgana.
It's an interesting opportunity for them to get to know someone from a different culture — something they will be able to do often at Stanford.
“She’s really cool," Iriafen said. "She’s really funny, she’s really sweet. I think all our different personalities mesh well together.