With a wingspan of more than 6 feet — 79 1/2 inches to be exact — Francesca Belibi clearly has a very wide reach.
But what the Regis Jesuit sophomore accomplished Jan. 6 stretched from coast-to-coast and maybe around the world.
When you are the first known girls prep basketball player in Colorado to dunk in a game, people want to know about it. And they did, quickly after her 1-handed stuff against Grand Junction hit social media.
By the time Belibi got home from the game, it had been the No. 1 highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter countdown. A day later, Belibi t-shirts were for sale in the stands.
A phenomenon happens quickly.
“We’re not talking about a 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 Brittney Griner, this is a girl who is 6-1 — if that — who can palm a basketball, has a 40-inch vertical and doesn’t even realize yet what she can do,” Regis Jesuit coach Carl Mattei said.
“I tell her ‘you do it in practice regularly, so if you get a chance in a game, go ahead and throw it down.’”
A lifelong tennis player who only took up basketball competitively roughly 14 months ago, Belibi has now done something that none of her predecessors in the state had done yet.
Mattei had seen Belibi dunk in practice before and word of it got out, which drew Geno Auriemma — the architect of the University of Connecticut’s NCAA women’s basketball dynasty — to stop by and check Belibi out at a game on the East Coast.
But real proof comes in an actual game and conditions were right in the game against Grand Junction, which came in winless to face a Regis Jesuit team that is beginning to come together.
Even though it was the Raiders’ first game since winter break, they came out crisp and jumped out to a quick lead. With just over three minutes remaining in the opening quarter, three Regis Jesuit players trapped a Grand Junction ballhandler near midcourt and forced a pass that ended up in Belibi’s hands.
She jetted toward the basket with three dribbles, took two steps and elevated, putting the ball down with her right hand. From the snap of the rim and the reaction of the crowd and her teammates, Belibi knew she had done something quite remarkable.
“I didn’t expect it to be honest with you, I just did it,” Belibi told the Sentinel after the game. “I didn’t realize it went in until I heard the crowd and the snap (of the rim). Then I definitely heard my teammates. I think the crowd understood the importance of it, the first girl to dunk, but it was completely unexpected.
“I mean, girls don’t dunk.”
Mattei had to call a time out to calm his team down and the buzz remained all the way to the final horn of the Raiders’ 78-23 win.
It wasn’t until Belibi watched the video on the phone of assistant coach John Koslosky just outside the Raiders’ lockerroom that something she’d practiced first at her parents’ gym actually happened in real competition.
Then, it spread. It’s been estimated that the video of Belibi’s dunk has been watched more than 2 million times on the various local and national outlets.
One of those viewers was Grandview’s Michaela Onyenwere, who caught the replay on a Snapchat feed.
The UCLA recruit and McDonald’s All-American Game nominee got an up close view of Belibi’s athleticism when the Wolves played Regis Jesuit on Dec. 3. Belibi rejected Onyenwere’s shot a couple of times and finished with 13 points and five blocks and Onyenwere countered with 11 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in Grandview’s lopsided victory.
“After one of our games, somebody said that Franny dunked and I was like ‘no way,’” Onyenwere said. “I finally saw the video. She just took it in with one hand and everything. Congrats to her.”
But don’t think that Belibi’s dunk has fired up Onyenwere to match it. She can dunk a volleyball in practice, but it’s never been something she’s set out to do.
Onyenwere has heard calls for her to dunk ever since she showed off her remarkable jumping ability as a freshman. It’s not likely.
“My body just always wants to do a layup, it’s just programmed that way,” Onyenwere said. “It’s never been my goal to dunk, but now everybody’s asking me.”
Belibi greatly enjoyed her chance to match up with Onyenwere, who she holds in high esteem.
“That was definitely a matchup I enjoyed; it’s good to push yourself,” Belibi said. “There aren’t too many people with the same body type and level of ability, so to play against Michaela was a nice opportunity to get prepared for what I might see in college.”
The dunk is only the tip of the iceberg in describing Belibi’s athleticism, however.
A game she’s played much longer — since she was 4 years old — is tennis. As soon as the basketball season is over, she’ll pick up a racquet and attempt to do some things that have rarely been seen on a tennis court as well.
Regis Jesuit coach Kollman Gearhart knew he had something incredibly special in Belibi from the first day she arrived at practice as a freshman.
“I have never dealt with an athlete like this in my life,” Gearhart said before the season. “I’ve done some private lessons with some former NFL players, but as far as a female, I’ve never seen anything like her.”
Belibi ended up partnered with diminutive Mackenzie Pedrie at No. 3 doubles and the unlikely duo placed third at the Class 5A girls state tennis tournament.
As much as basketball has gained her attention, Belibi still can’t wait to get on the tennis court. She is seeing the benefits of playing both sports.
“You can make a lot of comparisons between the two sports at the end of the day,” Belibi said after the tennis season.
“The way you place the ball and the way you move your feet are similar. I think playing two sports helps you stay in condition and build on certain things. It’s a nice break to do something different.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel