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International players to make big impact on South Jersey basketball

Juniors Uche Okafor of Camden Catholic and Mattia Morini of Bishop Eustace and sophomore Damilola Mosaku of Rancocas Valley project as key players for Top 10 teams.

Junior Uche Okafor projects as the starting center for sixth-ranked Camden Catholic.
Junior Uche Okafor projects as the starting center for sixth-ranked Camden Catholic.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

They came to America for the education and the basketball, to explore the culture, learn the language, savor the Lucky Charms.

"We don't have that much good cereal," Rancocas Valley sophomore Damilola Mosaku said of one of the big differences between his native Japan and his new home in South Jersey. "You have really good cereal over here. Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch."

Uche Okafor, a Nigerian native and junior at Camden Catholic, has been struck by the cuisine as well.

"Some things I won't eat, like Mac and Cheese," Okafor said. "I'll never eat Mac and Cheese. It just tastes weird to me, but everyone here loves it."

Mattia Morini, an exchange student from Italy and junior at Bishop Eustace, misses his family, girlfriend and the food.

But some things are growing on him.

"Cheesesteaks and burgers with fries, is good," Morini said.

Mosaku, Okafor and Morini are international students expected to make a major impact on some of the top teams in South Jersey boys' basketball this season.

All three are key members of teams ranked in the Top 10 in the Inquirer preseason Top 25, with Okafor and Morini projected to start and play major roles for the Irish and Crusaders, respectively.

In addition, Gloucester Catholic senior guard Nico Ferrari — who came to this country with Morini to attend a basketball camp last summer at Rowan University — and Camden junior center Osato Iduwe are foreign students who could see significant action on the court for local teams.

Gloucester Catholic coach Todd Powers said the 6-foot Ferrari is a clever ball-handler and defender who should help the Rams.

"Euro-style of play at both ends of the floor," Powers said. "Excellent basketball IQ. Will be interesting to watch his brand of basketball in South Jersey."

The eligibility status of the 6-11 Iduwe is unclear. He transferred to Camden from Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby Hills, Ohio

Iduwe attends Creative Arts High School in Camden's Morgan Village section. Camden coach John Valore indicated school officials are still working with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association to clarify Uduwe's eligibility.

The 6-3 Mosaku lives with his aunt and uncle in Lumberton. He arrived from Saitama, a city just north of Tokyo, in September.

"I wanted to come here for the education, because it's America," Mosaku said. "I thought the basketball would be fun, too."

Mosaku is a clever lefthander who can shoot the three-pointer and get to the rim. He scored eight points in one quarter in a recent scrimmage against Cherry Hill East.

"He's got good skills," Rancocas Valley coach Jay Flanagan said. "He just needs to get used to the way we play, the way we defend."

Mosaku projects as a sixth or seventh man for the Red Devils, at least early in the season. He could provide instant offense off the bench.

Mosaku, 16, has been struck by the Rancocas Valley's intensity of play. The Red Devils, who are No. 9 in the preseason rankings, are known for their work ethic and aggressive defense.

"It's hard work," Mosaku said. "It's like they expect a lot from you. They expect you to work hard. It's a good program."

Mosaku said there are major differences in the sport in America as compared to Japan.

"In Japan, the game is much faster," Mosaku said. "They play quicker because everybody is shorter.

"Here, it's more skill, beat your defender. Over there, it's quick, quick, quick."

Mosaku also has been impressed by the suburban sprawl in South Jersey.

"Just the size of everything," Mosaku said. "All the space for houses. Japan is compact. Everything is close together, houses, businesses, everything. Over here, it's all spread."

Mosaku left his mother, father and 13-year-old sister back in Japan. He says he calls his mom every day.

"I'm used to being away now," Mosaku said.

Okafor has been in South Jersey since the summer of 2015, just before his freshman year at Camden Catholic. He has lived in the school's Nazareth House on campus.

Okafor is following the trail blazed by another Nigerian exchange student, Demola Onifade, who lived in the Nazareth House and played for Camden Catholic from 2013-15.

"He had a good time here," Okafor said of Onifade, now a junior center and electrical engineering major at Delaware State.

The 6-foot-7 Okafor played major minutes for the Irish as a freshman but sat out all of last season with a stress fracture in his shin.

"I tell everybody that last year was worst year of entire life," Okafor said. "I hated being on bench when everyone else was playing."

Okafor, 17, projects as the starting center for the Irish, the No. 6 team in the preseason rankings. He is an athletic player who should be a force as a defender and rebounder while he continues to develop his offensive skills, according to Camden Catholic coach Matt Crawford.

"Once a practice, he'll do something and me and the coaches will look at each other and say, 'Wow,' " Crawford said. "He's so athletic, and he's such a coachable kid. He wants to keep getting better and better."

Okafor said basketball is different in Nigeria.

"There are more athletic guys over there," he said. "Here you have to learn. That was a problem I had in the beginning. In Nigeria, we just ran. If you were faster, stronger, bigger, they would just give it to you. But here you have to learn plays, contribute to the team. That set me back a lot when I first got here."

Okafor has not seen his mother, father or 10 siblings since arriving in America from his home in Lagos. He has eight sisters and two brothers.

"I talk to them, phone calls, Skype," Okafor said.

Okafor said American cuisine was a challenge for him at first.

"It's a very big difference," Okafor said of the food. "That was the hardest thing for me. When I first got here, I absolutely hated the food here. I couldn't eat anything. I spent most of my time eating burgers and fries because we have that back in Nigeria."

Okafor said he'll never grow accustomed to Mac and Cheese. But he has adjusted to other things.

"Some things tasted weird at the beginning and are a lot better now, like mashed potatoes," Okafor said. "When I first had them, I thought they were disgusting, but now I like them."

The 6-6 Morini has become known as "The Big Cannoli" on campus in his brief time at Bishop Eustace. In fact, the school is planning "Cannoli Night" for the season opener Friday at home against Washington Township.

"I like it," Morini said. "The people are better than in Italy. They invite you to their home. They offer you food, dinner. I have a lot of friends."

Morini is a highly skilled and instinctive player who already is drawing recruiting interest from NCAA Division I programs such as Marist. He is projected to start at forward for the 10th-ranked Crusaders.

"He can really play," Bishop Eustace coach Bob Falconiero said. "He can shoot, and he's got a great feel for it, bounce passes, vision."

Morini has a mother, father and two younger brothers back home in Bologna in northern Italy. He said he talks to his parents on the weekends and to his girlfriend every day.

Morini, 17, lives with former Bishop Eustace star Bob Fisicaro in Pitman. Morini said there's a big difference between basketball in Italy and in America.

"Here is more athletic, and you have more one-on-one," Morini said. "In Italy, it doesn't matter who takes the shot and scores. The sets are longer and more complex. Here, we have a lot of sets that are easier, quicker."

Morini said the two-week camp at Rowan this summer marked his first visit to America.

"I came here for basketball and for education and to learn English," Morini said.

Morini said he has been most surprised by the hospitality in South Jersey.

"The people," Morini said of the thing that has made the most impression on him. "Because they always greet me, say hello to me, ask me about basketball and this season. They are nice with me, more than I expected."