The Sky’s the Limit Theresa Grace Mbanefo ’22

Theresa Grace Mbanefo ’22, began playing basketball because her older brother, Justin, played. The sport became something that the two would do together. “We would play together for hours,” Theresa Grace said.

As she grew older, she realized that her natural athleticism lent itself to the possibility of competing at the collegiate level.

When Theresa Grace visited Cornell as a senior in high school, she was recovering from a ligament tear in her knee and worried how the coaching staff would react to her injury. However, the coaching staff, Theresa Grace said, showed nothing but encouragement and confidence that she would quickly get back to 100%. Theresa Grace said she quickly understood that Cornell is a place where she would be cared for and supported, no matter what.

Now that Theresa Grace - like so many of her fellow Cornellians - is no longer on campus, she has found that the coaching staff's care and support has extended beyond the confines of East Hill.

Theresa Grace said she feels very lucky that her team played their final game of the season on March 7. It was only a few days later when Cornell’s administration announced that as a result of COVID-19’s spread, instruction was moving online. The basketball team struggled, along with the rest of the university, to understand just what these changes would mean. Would they be able to stay on campus and work out together?

Theresa Grace Mbanefo shoots a jumper over a defender during the Cornell Big Red women's basketball team’s contest against Binghamton University on Dec. 5, 2019 in Newman Arena in Ithaca, N.Y.

It was a “weird sort of limbo,” full of uncertainty, Theresa Grace said. What stands out from that week, however, is the coaching staff sitting down the basketball team and telling the players that no matter what, everything was going to be fine, giving the players a sense of reassurance, she said.

During a normal year, post-season is a time for the players to build on the successes of the past season and to work on individual goals in preparation for next year’s season, said Dayna Smith, the Rebecca Quinn Morgan ’60 head coach. Players spend four hours doing strength and conditioning work and two hours doing skills training on the court per week. Now, everything is different, she said. All of that time together is lost.

However, the players have not stopped training. In sports, you learn to be adaptable, Theresa Grace, said, and that includes significant changes to training regimens. Instead of working out in the machinery in the university's gym and weight room, Theresa Grace is doing most of her workouts with bodyweight and the few dumbbells she has at home. Only half the team has access to a basketball hoop, reported Coach Smith. However, through an app called TeamBuildr, strength coach Erika Rogan sends personalized workouts to each player, adapted to their needs and resources. “She is available 24/7,” said Theresa Grace of Rogan.

Thersa Grace working out in the driveway of her parents' home in Otsego, Minnesota.

Despite this virtual support, Theresa Grace said it is difficult to get through the hard workouts without the enthusiasm and camaraderie provided by working out with her teammates. Luckily, she does not always have to work out alone. She is once again living with Justin and the brother who inspired her to play basketball in the first place is now helping her prepare for her junior season. The coaching staff told Theresa Grace that her top priority should be playing one-on-one vs. her 6-foot-5 brother. Standing at an even 6-foot, Theresa Grace said that playing against Justin is helping her get stronger, quicker and more coordinated.

Theresa Grace with her brother, Justin, in their home in Otsego, Minnesota.

The team and coaching staff have a weekly Zoom meeting to stay connected. Although there is plenty of work to discuss, they still manage to have fun, Theresa Grace said. Each week, a different class is responsible for planning a fun activity. A few weeks ago, the juniors led charades, providing a bit of levity. On Fridays, the teammates have a social Zoom call where they can goof off and just be friends. These calls are themed – one week they all wore jerseys and on another they dressed as would-be attendees of the Kentucky Derby.

The Big Red women's basketball team on their weekly Zoom "social" calls wearing Kentucky Derby hats (left) and other team's jerseys (right).

Sports create a strong bond between teammates and the Cornell women's basketball team has found that their bond is stronger than social distancing, Theresa Grace said.

Theresa Grace said her teammates have impacted almost every aspect of her Cornell career. “Basketball has given me so many mentors,” she said, “both athletically and academically.” When Theresa Grace first committed to Cornell, she was not exactly sure what she wanted to study. In order to explore her interests, the coaches recommended that she apply to the College of Arts & Sciences, where Theresa Grace spent her freshman year as a Government major.

However, she quickly realized that her interests were closely aligned with the focus of the ILR School. Theresa Graces plans to go to law school and has a special interest in employment law. Hearing about the experiences of ILR teammates Jessica Willerson’s ’20 and Stephanie Umeh’s ’20 solidified Theresa Grace’s transfer to ILR last fall.

Theresa Grace said she loves much about ILR – from the small classes that allow students to befriend their classmates, to personable faculty such as Allison Weiner Heinamann, who deeply care about their students and push them to better, to the advisers who know her by name. Basketball makes it difficult to balance schoolwork, she said, but her passion for both motivates her to work hard.

In addition, years of managing a tight schedule has forced Theresa Grace to develop strong time management skills. The key, she claimed, is staying organized. She also said that she compartmentalizes her life into blocks of time in which she can focus on the task at hand. For example, she said she likes to do schoolwork on campus where she gets work done best, and leaves home for relaxation. Finally, Theresa Grace added that all of her teammates are similarly academically motivated and hold each other accountable.

Theresa Grace Mbanefo is triple-teamed during the Cornell Big Red women's basketball team's contest against Brown on Friday, January 31, 2020 in Newman Arena in Ithaca, N.Y.

Although Therea Grace misses a lot about being on campus – especially Mac’s flatbreads – she said there are positives to being stuck at home. For one, the absence of basketball has given Theresa Grace more time to concentrate on her courses. Mostly, she’s happy to be home with her family. Due to the length of the basketball season, which runs from November to March, Theresa Grace has relatively few opportunities to visit her home in Otsego, Minnesota – just fall break in October and five days at Christmas. Although she loves being part of the basketball team, that amount of time away from home can be hard. Theresa Grace is cherishing the time she has now, taking walks with her mom and, of course, playing basketball with her older brother.

Theresa Grace is looking forward to being back on campus. She is excited to be back in Ives, and cannot wait to work out and play pickup with her teammates.

The basketball team is graduating six seniors this year, leaving big shoes to fill. According to Coach Smith, Theresa Grace had an excellent sophomore year, preparing her for even better years to come. “We’re going to be able to expect a lot from her,” Smith said. “The sky is the limit for her.”

Coach Smith (left) speaks with Elodie Furey (middle) and Theresa Grace Mbanefo (right) during the Big Red's 2019 Ivy League Tournament game vs. Princeton at Yale's Payne Whitney Gym in New Haven, Conn.


Eldon Lindsay; Sideline Photos