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April 3, 2006

An NCAA title game with a Cameroon accent

INDIANAPOLIS - Look out, Indomitable Lions. The soccer-mad African nation of Cameroon is fixated on basketball these days.

The NCAA championship game Monday night had a distinctly Cameroonian flair, thanks to UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya, and Florida's Joakim Noah. Mbah a Moute and Aboya are from Cameroon, and Noah's grandparents live there.

''I'm very proud of the players who represent our county in the championship,'' said Raymond Epote, the deputy chief of mission at the Cameroon embassy in Washington. ''We are always proud of Cameroonians that do well in sports.''

Traditionally, the Indomitable Lions get all the attention in Cameroon, a west African nation about the size of California. Soccer is the national sport, and the Indomitable Lions are ranked 15th in the world and have won four African championships. They appeared in the last four World Cups, although they failed to qualify for the upcoming one in Germany.

But basketball is becoming more popular. And interest is sure to grow now that Cameroon can lay claim to part of the NCAA title - regardless of the winner.

''I have a lot of love for people from Cameroon, especially guys that are playing basketball and doing well,'' said Noah, who still spends parts of his summers in Cameroon, where his father, tennis star Yannick Noah, grew up.

''After the game we will probably talk, but right now (they're) the enemy,'' Noah said. ''I'm not really worried about showing (them) any love.''

Noah was raised in France - Cameroon is a former French colony - and New York, where he developed his considerable game on the playgrounds. Better-known for his famous father a month ago, he's been one of the breakout stars in the NCAA tournament, averaging 13.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists.

He was honored as the outstanding player of the Minneapolis Regional, and has Florida playing for the NCAA title for the second time since 2000.

For Mbah a Moute and Aboya, the road to the championship game was a little more arduous.

Cameroon had a successful basketball team in the 1970s, and Epote said kids now walk down the street bouncing a basketball. But Mbah a Moute (pronounced Luke Ree-SHARD Umbah-a-MOO-teh) traded his soccer ball for a basketball only five years ago.

When Mbah a Moute realized basketball could pay his way for college, he came to the United States and went to prep school in Florida.

''Leaving my hometown and my family was very hard,'' said Mbah a Moute, who is a prince because his father, Camille Moute a Bidias, is the chief of a rural village of about 4,000 people outside the capital of Yaounde.

''I knew I had to come to the States,'' Mbah a Moute added. ''My dad told me that a man has to do what a man has to do, and I have to be in control of my life.''

He certainly is in control of his game. Only a freshman, his 7-foot wingspan and innate rebounding ability have been key to UCLA's smothering defense. In Saturday night's semifinal game against LSU, he shut down Glen Davis.

He can play a little offense, too. He scored 17 points against LSU, and finished the Tigers off with back-to-back monster dunks to open the second half.

Aboya, who also grew up in Yaounde, was limited by injuries for most of the season, but he and Mbah a Moute have been embraced by the Bruins faithful. Fans sport ''Cameroon Crazy'' T-shirts, and the entire UCLA band carried tiny green, yellow and red Cameroon flags Saturday night.

Even the Bruin mascot was waving the flag.

''It's great to have support like that,'' Aboya said. ''Being far from home, it's good to have people supporting you.''

Because of the time difference - Cameroon is nine hours ahead of Los Angeles - neither Aboya nor Mbah a Moute gets to talk to his family often. Their families don't get to see their games, either, and they don't quite understand how big the tournament is.

That could change. Embassy workers have been busy running off any story about the Cameroonian players, and planned to send a full report home after the game. Many in Cameroon were expected to follow the game on the Internet.

Noah's family got to see him play in person. His father came from France and his grandmother, Marie Clare Noah, traveled from Cameroon.

''I've got my whole crew coming. Everyone except my grandfather,'' Noah said. ''He's in Africa right now, which is actually pretty good because it's going to help us in the long run.''

Noah said late in the regular season that his grandfather, Zacharie Noah of Cameroon, had sacrificed a chicken to help the team win. He later said his grandfather worked a little more voodoo during the NCAA tournament.

''Why do you think we're winning?'' Noah said. ''Got to. Maybe a goat next time.''

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