Mpumalanga Rhinos

Ngona believes she is HER and is already spreading her wings

RACHEL ‘Rocket’ Ngona exudes confidence in her ability to play basketball, and while she picked up the game a little late in high school, she quickly adapted and has gone on to become a star in a short space of time.

It has also led the point guard, who has starred for Mpumalanga Rhinos and had a stint with Mozambican club New Vision de Pemba, to proclaim herself as HER.

Before her bold declaration and career reflection, Ngona, a 3X3 specialist, explained to The Big Tip Off how basketball entered the fray of her life.

Ngona ditches the soccer boots for basketball sneakers

Ngona, an avid football fan, was nursing a right ankle injury – at the time. During Ngona’s recovery process, one of her peers tried to persuade her to switch codes.

“I was a soccer player and loved everything to do with it. In my grade 10 year, I was playing (football) and got injured. One of my friends, who was playing basketball, asked me to give it a try,” said the 22-year-old.

At first, she was reluctant, but once she realised the game unleashed her toughness, Ngona swayed – tentatively!

“Initially, I was like, hmmm, I love soccer … I am not going to play a sport I am not familiar with. After getting out of my cast, I went to one training, and to my surprise, I could be aggressive and no one would ask ‘Why are you being aggressive’?” said the former Athlone Girls High School pupil.

Rachel Ngona during the JBI tournament
Rachel Ngona had the experience of a lifetime while playing in Mozambique. Pictures: The BTO

The second practice was the charm. It was also a time Ngona shot her shot in the provincial ranks.

“I did not instantly fall in love with it, but it was interesting. I realised I had a good handle and I could shoot threes. Which all came naturally,” said Ngona. “The second practice is when I fell in love with the game. There were also provincial trials that week, and I made it to the final stage, where they selected a team.

“That is when I realised I have the potential to go far in this game.”

While Ngona bloomed in basketball, an abrupt reality crept on her – she could not have the best of both worlds playing her newfound sports and football.

“I had a difficult decision to make because while playing basketball, I was captain of the soccer team in grade 11. My dad reminded me that I can’t do everything as I risked getting injured,” said Ngona. “Basketball was the winner. When I did not have transport to go to a court, I would walk to a court. That is how much I love the game.”

In the last two years of high school (2018 and 2019), Ngona cracked the nod for the Gauteng provincial team. She spent time refining her game, leading to recognition from her province. She described making the team as “a great feeling”, and it helped elevate her self-confidence.

“The following year, I worked on improving my game. I added a layup package, bettered my handles and improved my accuracy from three-point range. That led to me making the team (provincial) two years running,” said Ngona. “It was a great feeling (making the provincial team). I also started to believe more in my ability. I did not have anyone to look up to or tell me, ‘This is how you play basketball’. So I was just having fun with it.”

Her hard work over the last few years has paid off and continues to do so in the present. It has led to her making the following statement.

“My game has become more composed. I feel I am different and my game is on another level. I believe that I am HER,” said Ngona.

Learning the ropes and starring in the WBNL

Since then, Ngona, the 1.70m (5ft7) floor general, has played three seasons in the Women’s Basketball National League (WBNL) and has stood out for a struggling Rhinos team.

Despite her WBNL franchise being unable to make waves, Ngona has made an individual impact since her debut season in 2021.

The intelligent point guard has been a WBNL All-Star three times. Ngona feels the four-year-old women’s league is a platform for exposure.

“It was inspiring for us. It felt like they (BNL management) finally saw us because I was playing pick-up games before that. I felt my talent needed to be out there. So, the BNL recognising me and other talented players is amazing,” said Ngona.

Rachel Ngona at the Dreals Paris 3X3 tournament.
Rachel Ngona playing at the 3X3 Dreals Paris tournament in Johannesburg.

She also reflected on the Rhinos’, who had won a game a single in their first two years of existence. Ngona believes season three was a slight improvement: “We have had our ups and downs. But I have the Dame Lillard attitude, where you build. I don’t want to title chase. Wherever I play, I want to have fun and be part of the building process. We can grow as a franchise, and 2023 is the beginning.”

Falling in love with the Mozambican game

Another milestone in the bag for Ngona was playing in Mozambique in the women’s Liga Sasol, sponsored by the South African petroleum parastatal.

Ngona, who suited up for New Vision de Pemba, was excited that she got a chance to play on a much bigger stage.

“UJ (University of Johannesburg) coach Thuso Moiloa called me and said, ‘There is an opportunity for you to play in Mozambique. Are you available?” said Ngona. “Of course, I was excited and told him I was down. It was a big stage for me. And I had to prove that I could play at a high level.

“It was not hard adjusting to their physicality. Their intensity and physical style is higher than anything I have experienced. And you have to play through that. It was a great experience. I would go back again. I fell in love.”

Ngona, who recently won the Johannesburg Invitational with Corinthians BWA, has established herself as a star in the South African game. She has also tasted basketball outside the country, and the hope is to see her spread her wings further.

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Veteran Banza electrifying Mpumalanga Rhinos

JOHNNY Banza is a stand-out personality for the BNL franchise, Mpumalanga Rhinos. He is the type of player who brings energy, passion and leadership to this young team that made the playoffs last season and hopes to go a step further this year by making the final four.

Banza’s character traits have been a useful tool for the Rhinos. Team coach, Tutu Gama elaborated on why the Democratic Republic of Congo-born forward’s characteristics led to him being appointed captain of the team.

“He is my captain. I chose him because I like his intensity. The guy is from the DRC and is a beast who is very hard to box out. He uses his physique to his advantage, and towards the end he was the only one scoring,” said Gama, referring to the forward’s performance in the Rhinos’ 76-68 victory against the Panthers.

Banza, who is doing his Masters in Electrical Engineering at Vaal University of Technology, acknowledges his approach to the game, how his electric on-court persona, and style of play impacts positively for the Rhinos. The 32-year-old also believes it was his brashness and physicality that helped to seal the victory over the Panthers.

“That’s in me! Once I’m on the court, I want to leave it all there. It’s meaningless if you don’t. I am the captain, the oldest in the team, and have to lead by example. I have to display the right kind of energy for the young players,” said Banza, who dropped 14 points and crashed 10 boards against the Panthers.

Banza always tries to get the upper-hand against any opponent at both ends of the paint area. He uses his physicality and a bit of verbal jibing to take the opposing player off their game – something that worked well against the Panthers.

Rhinos captain Johnny Banza and his team have set their sights on a final-four finish in this year’s BNL. Picture: THE BTO

“The first thing for me is defence. It’s either you don’t score or I get the ball. I play defence and trash-talk to get the opponent frustrated. On offence, I bring the energy,” said Banza, who acknowledges that he is part of a dying breed of forwards.

“The new way of playing basketball is not about the big guy posting down low. The big guy can shoot outside and can drive in. We are trying to adjust to the new FIBA basketball.”

Reflecting on the match against the Panthers, Banza’s team had a strangle hold in the first three quarters of the game. When the Mpumalanga franchise momentarily loosened their grip in the fourth quarter, the Panthers clawed their way back. Reflecting on the Panthers’ quick fight-back and how the Rhinos regrouped to regain the lead, Banza says his team never once wavered in their commitment.

“It’s a game of basketball. There is a time when everything is working and when it doesn’t go your way. We had a very tough third quarter where nothing was working on both offence and even defence, and so we tried to adjust in the fourth quarter. We saw the mistakes, quickly applied the strategy the coach came up with, and won the game,” said Banza, who is in his fourth season with the Rhinos.

The Rhinos participated in the 2013 inaugural final of the BNL, but after that, they had a tough couple of seasons until last year when they made the playoffs. Banza believes the team, who have a 4-1 win-loss record this season, can reach the final four, an ambition highlighted by the team’s coach earlier.

“We are taking it one game at a time. The aim is to make it to the top four, but we have to get to the quarter-finals first,” said Banza, who believes they have a team capable of reaching their goal.

“I trust my teammates, coach and management. We have a young squad and some experienced players. We have energy. The team has  talented players who play varsity basketball. I trust them and believe we are going to do great things this season,” concluded Banza.

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