CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Joanne Boyle offered a quick prayer before clicking the photo link of a days-old girl in a Senegalese orphanage. Maybe, after so many years of waiting, this would be the child the Virginia women's basketball coach could bring home.
The fuzzy picture popped up on her laptop. Staring back at her from a world away was a close-up of little Ngoty, blanket around her.
"She had the biggest eyes in the world. Her eyes just stared at me," Boyle said. "I caught my breath for a second and said, 'Whatever I need to do to bring this child here, I'm going to do it.'"
In December, almost at midseason and after 14 trips to Senegal over more than six years, Boyle got the call. Time to go for Ngoty. At 51, Boyle was going to become a first-time, single mother.
She was advised to spend as much time as possible with her new daughter in the early months to bond with her. So Boyle has developed a unique arrangement. Ngoty travels with the team to games, and often shows up at practice after spending the day with her grandmother. She is getting to know the arena — and her mother's office — almost as well as her new house.
The solution: Ngoty is part of the team.
"She loves being here with the girls on the team, loves it," Boyle said. "Her ability to adapt here, a little bit, has got to be somewhat us spending time together."
There are millions of working single moms, and there are about 350 women's basketball coaches in Division I. Few are both.
Boyle hardly considers her situation different from other mothers trying to do it all. Still, few of those moms work with their children in tow.
For Boyle, taking time away to be with her 3-year-old isn't an option. Her schedule typically features two games a week, meetings with staff, players and recruits, a regular radio show. She might travel for a game and come home, only to turn around to go watch a top high school player.
"She has too much pride in what she does and who she is and now who she represents to allow for something to take her off track," Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said.
At games, Ngoty regularly sits with her 79-year-old grandmother, Joan, who relocated to Virginia until Boyle hires a regular nanny. The toddler has figured out how to cheer, yelling "D-fense!" or "Go Hoos!" from the stands. She wears gear from a box that Nike sent to welcome her to America.
When the team travels, Ngoty often goes along, riding with the players and her mom. On one two-hour bus trip home from Virginia Tech, Ngoty sat on Boyle's lap, watching "The Jungle Book" on an iPad as Boyle watched game film on her laptop. For the ACC tournament, Ngoty took one of her longest rides, driving with her mother and grandma behind the bus. They knew Ngoty might get a little wiggly, and wanted the flexibility to stop.
She will be there Thursday rooting for the Cavaliers (17-12) as they face Miami in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Soon, Boyle hopes, Ngoty will go to a local language-immersion preschool and have a more regular schedule. For now, she is on an adventure.
"You've eaten at more restaurants than most 2-year-olds. You've been on more airplanes than most 2-year-olds. You've stayed in more hotels than most 2-year-olds," Boyle explained to her in January.
Boyle had known for years — since she was 17 — that she wanted to adopt a child. Her yearning only grew in 2001, when she suffered a brain aneurysm after a run.
In May 2008, when she was the head coach at California, the team traveled to Senegal for international games and visited an orphanage. She left inspired.
Leads on children fell through. Boyle got sick on trips abroad. But she pressed ahead — especially after that day when she opened Ngoty's picture.
She prayed, and relied on her deep faith.
Each trip to Senegal entailed an eight-hour flight to Dakar from Washington's Dulles International Airport, then a rugged drive of nearly 300 miles that could take 8-9 hours, or longer on the trips when Boyle and her driver blew a tire or their car overheated in the 120-degree temperatures.
On each visit, Boyle spent anywhere from four days to two weeks with Ngoty before returning to her basketball duties at home.
From the beginning, Boyle shared her commitment to adopt with Littlepage. In December, he sent a letter to the embassy when Boyle was stuck in Senegal trying to secure Ngoty's visa because she didn't have a birth certificate or formal paperwork. His message: Virginia needed her home — with Ngoty.
"We acknowledged early on that she wasn't even going to try to do this alone," he said.
When Ngoty turned 3, she celebrated with the team in the gym after practice. There were cupcakes and pizza and candles. Boyle realized her daughter may not have ever celebrated a birthday. A telltale sign: She was scared of the candle.
Freshman guard Aliyah Huland El came to the rescue and showed her how to blow it out. Then, she got another try.
This time, Ngoty nailed it. Her new family — and team — watched over her, proudly.