Tall and talented front wall for Penn Ugonna Onyekwe, Koko Archibong give the Quakers a 1-2 punch.

Posted: December 22, 2001

The NBA scout was leaving Bender Arena at American University in Washington when someone asked him if he saw a future in the pro game for Penn forwards Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong.

The Quakers had just defeated the host Eagles, 61-51, in the Dec. 1 contest. Foul trouble limited Onyekwe to eight points and two rebounds that day, but Archibong got hot early and wound up with 22 points and seven rebounds.

"They have a chance," the scout said. "They could both be drafted."

The 6-foot-8 Onyekwe and the 6-9 Archibong are drawing raves for the athletic and versatile performances they are providing the Quakers.

With Onyekwe (19.4 ppg.) and Archibong (17.3) combining to average 36.7 points per game, Penn is off to a 6-2 start and gearing for a run at regaining the Ivy League title. Last year, the Quakers fell short of their third consecutive Ivy championship when they went 12-17.

"I think they are unique because neither one of them is a center, and that helps you in the college game today," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, whose team defeated the Quakers, 67-61, on Dec. 8. "They can play from the perimeter, they can bounce the ball and they can play with their backs to the basket. They play well together. I'm not looking forward to having to face them again this season and next."

"Both Koko and Ugonna are unique at the forward position because they can win a game for you any way you need them to," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team lost to Penn, 75-74, when Onyekwe blocked a shot at the end of overtime.

"If you need a blocked shot, they can do that," Wright said. "If you need a three, they can make them. If you need a great pass to find the open man, they can do that. They are excellent players, and one of the reasons Penn is so hard to defend."

Are the two juniors the best forward combination ever to play for Penn?

"We had very good forwards in Corky Calhoun and Robert Morse (1969-72), and Ron Haigler and John Engles (1973-75), but from an athletic standpoint, Ugonna and Koko match up favorably with the other two tandems," said Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky.

"But the final word will depend on whether they can lead the team to the same success that those guys before them did. I hope they can."

Onyekwe, a native of London, is shooting 52.7 percent from the floor overall and 53 percent from three-point range. The Quakers' second-leading rebounder at 4.3, he is a smoothie whose facial expression rarely changes during a game. He makes spectacular plays as if there's nothing to it.

Archibong, who came to the Quakers from California, is leading the team in rebounding with 5.8 per game, while hitting 53 percent of his field goals and 33 percent from three-point territory. He has become adept at using his quickness and ball-handling skills to get to the hoop, and he can finish.

Both Onyekwe and Archibong began playing basketball at the relatively late age of 14.

"I was pretty amazed by them," sophomore guard Charlie Copp said of seeing Onyekwe and Archibong for the first time. "They can both jump out of the gym, and can step out and make plays like a guard or post-up."

Onyekwe and Archibong, who visited Penn the same weekend before committing to the Quakers, became fast friends and have learned as well to appreciate each other on the basketball court, where Onyekwe wears No. 1 and Archibong sports No. 2.

Onyekwe played on a high school team at Mercersburg Academy (Pa.) that included six players who signed with Division I teams. Archibong was a key player for a Polytechnic High squad in Pasadena, Calif., that went 27-0 during the regular season in his senior year.

"Obviously, he's very talented," Onyekwe said of Archibong. "Both of us bring that aspect to the floor that if you take away one thing, we can do something else. We've played together for three years now, and understand each other. That's chemistry, and I think we have that."

"I feel lucky to have somebody with his ability playing alongside me," Archibong said. "There's a guy who can do the same things you can do on offense and defense. In terms of switching on defense, we can guard each other's man. On offense, I pretty much know where he'll be and he pretty much knows where I'll be."

When Penn coach Fran Dunphy thought back to the top forward combinations he has had in his 13 seasons with the Quakers, he mentioned Barry Pierce and Shawn Trice, and Pierce and Tim Krug. But he certainly likes having the duo of Onyekwe and Archibong here in the present.

"They're two good basketball players, and they're off to a good start this year," Dunphy said. "But there will be some defenses that concentrate on them as the season goes on, and we'll see how well they adjust to that."

As for one day playing in the NBA, both Onyekwe and Archibong acknowledged interest.

"Everybody that plays probably has those aspirations," Archibong said. "But I don't let it consume me. I have a job to do here, and my schoolwork and my team."

"That's always a dream when you play this game," Onyekwe said. "You want to play at the highest level. That's something I've always thought about and am aiming for."

Kevin Tatum's e-mail address is ktatum@phillynews.com.

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