In its final county game of the regular season, the South Carroll girls' basketball team was deadlocked with host Francis Scott Key. The visiting Cavaliers needed a win to clinch at least a share of the county championship and a clutch play to finally vanquish the underdog Eagles.
The solution was clear: get the ball in the hands of Makeba Ndifang.
The senior forward, who tallied six of her team's final eight points in the Feb. 14 contest, scored on a layup with nine seconds left for a 52-50 victory that guaranteed the Cavaliers a share of the title with Century.
Westminster's 70-54 win over Century on Feb. 19 dropped Century to 11-3 in the county and made South Carroll (12-2 in county) undisputed Carroll County champs.
South Carroll wouldn't be 15-7 overall without Ndifang's production. The 5-11 senior forward from Mt. Airy ranks among the county's leaders in scoring (14.4), rebounding (10.5), steals (2.9) and field goal percentage (.451).
In her four-year career, she has totaled 753 points and 572 rebounds.
But her value to the best Cavalier team in many years goes well beyond the stat sheet. An active defender who runs the court well and possesses several strong low-post moves, Ndifang's leadership has been crucial to a young team that features just three seniors and starts two freshmen, forward Bri Heim and guard Keriann McTavish.
"I've never had anyone her size that was so quick, so strong, and so athletic," said eighth-year Cavalier coach Liz Padgett. "That is what makes her different. I haven't had anybody who has put the skill and athleticism together in the post like she has. She's proven herself, and right now Makeba is the best player in the county. "
Padgett admits Ndifang's talent has always been there and saw the senior's leadership skills develop early in her South Carroll career.
"I knew she'd be a good captain," Padgett said. "The kids listen to her, and they respect her. When she would get fired up on the floor, the other kids would get the same way. That's something I can't teach."
Her parents, Ernest and Evelyn, are natives of Cameroon in west central Africa. They named their oldest child after Miriam Makeba, the Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist.
Ndifang was born in Berlin, Germany, and came to the United States when she was 11 years old and at the midpoint of sixth grade. Her family lived with Ndifang's aunt in Montgomery County for six months, before moving to their current home in Mt. Airy.
"Our whole family was really excited to move," said Ndifang, the big sister to brother Achidi and sister Malaika. "The hardest part for me was learning the language. I was able to understand English, but I wasn't fluent at all. Once I got that settled, school became easier for me."
Before she discovered basketball, Ndifang's primary interests were theater and music. Soccer was the only sport that she watched. She played basketball briefly in Germany, but became enamored with the sport when she moved to America. Padgett heard about Ndifang long before she entered high school.
"Jerry Heim (of the Winfield Recreation Council) coached a lot of our girls before they came here," Padgett said. "He came to me one day and said, ''There's a kid named Makeba who is very raw, but you'll have someone you can work with.' I went to watch her play, and she was so aggressive. When she came to South Carroll, she still needed to work on fundamentals. It's interesting to see how far she's come so quickly."
Ndifang was called up to the South Carroll varsity near the end of her freshman year. She never went back to the jayvee.
"I needed to improve my footwork," she said. "Coach has worked with me to develop a drop step, a hook shot, and now a spin move."
As she progressed at South Carroll, her game and attitude were noticed by numerous collegiate coaches. Ndifang started to get letters prior to her junior year from NCAA programs at all levels and recently committed to the Naval Academy, where she will play for coach Stefanie Pemper's two-time defending Patriot League champions.
"It's a great educational opportunity at one of the top schools in the U.S.," Ndifang said. "I have the opportunity to do something after high school that not a lot of kids get: the chance to serve my country. I'm really excited to challenge myself, in ways that I can't anywhere else. After you graduate, you get to travel the world, help others, and be a leader."
Ndifang will first spend a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. Her high school friend, former South Carroll point guard Dan Mullen, is in his freshman year at Navy Prep.
"Seeing someone from this area go that route and do well shows me that it's possible," she said. "Dan has been very open in answering my questions about the average day (at Navy Prep), the amount of homework, and what it's like to play basketball there."
Ndifang has prepared for the academic rigors of the Academy by taking mostly Honors and Advanced Placement classes at South Carroll. She graduated from the Biomedical Science program at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center last month.
"I got a lot of hands-on experience in that program," said Ndifang, who is the vice president of South Carroll's Multicultural Club and historian for the school's National Honor Society chapter. "You usually don't get that opportunity until your sophomore or junior year of college."
Now that the Cavaliers have clinched the county title, their final goal is a regional championship to earn a berth in the state championships next month at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
South Carroll, which received the third seed and a first-round bye in the Class 2A West Region, hasn't reached the state semifinals since 1980.
"That's always in the back of my head, but right now I just want to focus on every game," Ndifang said. "I have the mindset of seeing every opponent as an opportunity to get closer to that end goal, and not get too carried away."