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Gem in the gym: Roseville’s humble Tamia Ugass nears her next basketball dream

By JIM PAULSEN, Star Tribune, 02/03/21, 5:15PM CST


Raised by her immigrant mother and encouraged by two special families, the 6-3 post player with the dexterity of a point guard is heading to LSU next year on a scholarship that she never thought possible a few years ago.

Roseville basketball player Tamia Ugass bumped fists with teammate Drew Johnston, left, before their Jan. 29 game against Stillwater. Photos: LEILA NAVIDI • leila.navidi@startribune.com

Steve and Lori Prioleau didn’t think they had room.

The husband and wife team, who had long run Sugah — a basketball program for inner city girls based at St. Paul’s Martin Luther King Center — had a thriving program about six years ago and their roster for seventh-graders was already filled with girls looking to play.

“Then I saw her come into the gym,” Steve Prioleau recalled, harking back to the first time he saw Tamia Ugass, already topping 6 feet. “I saw her height. I said, ‘Um, I think we can find room.’ ”

“You can’t coach height,” Lori Prioleau added. “And she had that.”

Now a robust 6-3 senior at Roseville, Ugass, with he  physical presence of a post with the dexterity of a point guard , is in the midst of a journey that once seemed impossible.

She’s averaging 20.4 points and 12 rebounds per game this season with Roseville (2-3 heading into Tuesday night's game), an increase of nearly six points over last year. After graduation — itself a significant achievement — she will head to the bayou with a basketball scholarship to LSU.

“If you would have told me that four or five years ago,’’ Ugass said, “I never would have believed you.”

Tamia Ugass shot a free throw in the game against Stillwater.

When her mother, Khali Jama, came to Minnesota from Somalia as a teenager in 1993, she was part of the first wave of Somali immigrants to the state.

“It was really different. It was a hard language to learn. I’d never seen snow,” she said.

Her teenage years were undisciplined as her family focused its energies on acclimating to the area. She got married young and had two children — a girl, Tamia, and a boy, Nikel — before getting divorced when they were still toddlers.

Suddenly a single mother, the idea of public assistance didn’t sit right with her sensibilities.

“I never wanted to be on welfare,” she said. “In life, you have to be a go-getter. I wanted a better life for my kids.”

That meant working two, sometimes three, jobs. Fifteen- or 16-hour workdays were the norm. Seeking to avoid public housing, she went from apartment to apartment, usually subsidized, which don’t lend themselves to long-term security. She reckons she moved a half-dozen times when her children were growing up in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Often, Tamia recalled, she would see little of her mother, but she always saw her sacrifice.

“She would work shift after shift. There were times with not much food on the table and she would go without eating. Or she wouldn’t get any sleep,” she said. “It opened my eyes at a young age.”

Ugass had always been drawn to basketball, for reasons Khali still doesn’t quite understand. “We’d go to the store and she’d run to the back to play with the basketballs,” Khali said. “I didn’t know what toys to buy her. I’d get her the wrong ones. She loved basketball.”

Ugass would sneak outside to play at nearby outdoor courts. “I’d go to the park behind my house and I’d play with all the dudes. I was pretty tall then and I kind of fit in,” she said.

Roseville's Tamia Ugass drove with the ball as Elizabeth Holder, right, of Stillwater defended.

The basketball court quickly became her sanctuary. She had no formal training, no coaching, no fundamentals. What she did have, however, was passion.

“I just love it,” she said. “When I play, it’s my escape. I can just go out there and play and have fun.”

In the more than two decades since the Prioleaus started coaching basketball, they’ve helped dozens of disadvantaged kids navigate their issues. But something about Ugass struck a chord. She was brimming with potential, sure, but it was more than that.

Ugass’ demeanor exudes grace and humility, residuals of Khali’s influence. Her unassuming nature, coupled with a home life that wasn’t pushing her forward, cried out to the Prioleaus.

“She’s never had any real coaching before, so that was important,” Lori said. “But more than that, there was so much we could do to help her. Coming from a single mom who’s trying to make ends meet, it’s difficult. I told her ‘Tamia, your God brought you to us. Our God has a plan for you. And it’s our job to help you on the journey.’ ”

First, there was school. Ugass said the instability at home played havoc with her ability to succeed in classes. She started spending more and more time at the Prioleau’s house, hitting the books. 

She had meals there, learned life skills and developed discipline. Slowly, her high school years took on a normalcy.

In top row, Lori and Steve Prioleau, with their daughter Dee Buford between them, watched Roseville's Tamia Ugass play in her game against Stillwater.

“I see the Prioleaus as my second family,” she said. “They do so much that nobody sees behind the scenes and they really get nothing out of it. I’m so fortunate to have them in my life.”

While her home life was under renovation, Ugass’ basketball life was expanding quickly. She accented her natural instincts with a deadly outside shot and smooth ball-handling skills, a definite plus for a player of her size.

What needed to show through was the confidence to use all the tools at her disposal. Never one to push her own agenda, both the Prioleaus and her AAU coach, Josh Hersch of the Minnesota Stars, urged her to be a little more selfish if she wanted to maximize her potential.

“She’s so humble,” Lori Prioleau says with a laugh. “She never asks for anything because she doesn’t want to be a burden. We had to get her to a point where she feels okay to start asking for things.”

Added Hersch, “She doesn’t want anything she doesn’t feel she’s earned. Once she gets comfortable, then she get the confidence to come out of that shell.”

Basketball at any level is a joy for Ugass, but she holds special love for her time spent with the Minnesota Stars. She’s made long term friends and played with a roster of quality players that allowed for her skill set to shine.

“You play with people with the same goals who are all around the same age and you build relationships,” Ugass said, citing her reasons for her fondness for her AAU home. Relationships are clearly the energy that propels Ugass forward.

Her mother and brother are immediate family and the Prioleau’s her second family. She calls her AAU team “my mini-family.” She counts her Minnesota Stars teammates as her closest friends, players such as Katie Borowicz, the former Roseau guard now with the Gophers.

“They became close over five years,” Hersch said. “Completely different backgrounds, but you’d get those two together, they were fun to watch.”

It’s not all basketball, either. Ugass is a Muslim. Although she doesn’t express her faith outwardly — for example, she doesn’t wear a hijab — it is a significant part of her life.

Ugass doesn’t observe the Muslim female tradition of staying covered from head to toe and that’s by design, her mother said.

“When I was a girl, I didn’t understand why we did it, only that I feared my parents more than God,” Khali said. “In my religion, God says ‘Teach them about me, then let them come to me’. If she covers, I want it to be because she does it for God.”

Two years ago, when Ramadan fell during the middle of the AAU season, her teammates stood next to her, even trying to follow the customary daytime fasting that marks the holy month.

“Ramadan is super hard because the days are long,” Ugass said of the month of fasting, meaning no food or water from sun up to sun down.

Hersch said helping Ugass observe her faith was “more about supporting a teammate and learning about other cultures.”

Last Nov. 11, what once seemed unrealistic became reality. Ugass signed a national letter of intent to play at LSU. It was one of only two Division I schools to offer her a full ride. Though she’d never set foot in Baton Rouge  — and still hasn’t, owing to the pandemic —  she jumped at it.

Tamia Ugass, seated at left, with family after signing her letter of intent to LSU. (submitted photo)

Tamia Ugass, seated at left, with family after signing her letter of intent to LSU. (submitted photo)

“It was the opportunity we worked so hard for,” Lori Prioleau said. “I broke down.”

To her mother, it meant all of her sacrifice had paid off, even if she’s still not thrilled about her oldest child living so far from home.

“This is my baby and she’s not a baby anymore,” Khali said. “I’m still not ready for her to go, but this is something she really wanted and I pray that she gets everything she wants.”

Ugass knows playing high-level Division I basketball will likely be the biggest athletic challenge of her life. But she’s overcome plenty. With the support network that’s organized behind her, she’s ready.

“This was always my dream,” she said. “I’ve been blessed to have so people who have helped me.”

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