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At the women’s Final Four, an international flavor is no accident

At the women’s Final Four, an international flavor is no accident

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

CLEVELAND – Connecticut forward Aaliyah Edwards spied the basketball court set up at Huntington Convention Center this week and couldn’t help but smile. Five years ago, on a similar court in Tampa during the 2019 women’s Final Four, Edwards played in the NCAA Next Generation Showcase event. In many ways, it was where college basketball started in earnest for the native of Ontario, Canada.

During that weekend, Edwards watched U-Conn. lose to Notre Dame in a national semifinal, but she established connections with the Huskies’ coaching staff. Five years later, Edwards is playing in her third Final Four and was named an honorable mention all-American after averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds for third-seeded Connecticut.

“Walking by, I was like, wow, this is really where it all started,” said Edwards, whose Huskies (33-5) will play No. 1 seed Iowa (33-4) in the second semifinal game Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. “Where I saw the NCAA trophy for the first time. … It was just a great full-circle moment for me because this is where [Coach Geno Auriemma] and [associate coach Chris Dailey] first saw me play and first got interested in me and it opened up a lot more opportunities.”

No. 1 seed South Carolina (36-0) plays No. 3 seed North Carolina State (31-6) in the first game.

Those showcase events, along with programs such as the NBA Academy and Basketball Without Borders, are part of outreach efforts by the NBA and WNBA to make the college game more international. Results are evident with a quick scan of tournament rosters: Edwards, teammate Nika Mühl (Croatia) and South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso (Brazil) are all playing this weekend, while Gonzaga forward Yvonne Ejim (Canada) and Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore (Australia) played earlier in the tournament.

Ejim was named the 2024 Becky Hammon award winner Wednesday, given to the top mid-major player in the country. Cardoso is a second-team all-American, Amoore was third team, and Mühl was an honorable mention.

The NBA Academy’s women’s program, focused on ages 14 to 18, started camps in 2018 with locations in India, Mexico, Senegal and the United States.

“The goal is to reach as many international girls basketball players as possible,” said Cinnamon Lister, a lead in NBA Elite Basketball Women’s Operations. “And we’ve had a strong track record for creating pathways for aspiring players from all corners of the world. We aim to serve that elite level. But we’ve also found diamond in the roughs, someone like Georgia Amoore, where she wasn’t being highly recruited.”

According to an NBA spokesman, 47 players who were part of the women’s program have gone on to earn Division I scholarships. Participation goes beyond just getting on the court. Lister works with the overseas federations and other connections to identify top talent; the programming includes panels on goal-setting, nutrition, the recruiting process, leadership, personal branding, mental wellness and heath. Camps typically run four days and include on-court instruction and competition in addition to the panels. There are even virtual sessions.

Former and current WNBA coaches and players have helped out with the program, including Diamond DeShields, Jordin Canada, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Jennifer Azzi and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Kia Nurse, Sophie Cunningham and Ticha Penicheiro participated in the virtual program this year.

“That’s really good for players,” said Cardoso, expected to be a first-round pick in the WNBA draft later this month. “It helps you build confidence. It helps you meet people from all over the world. … Just learn different types of basketball and stuff like that. … It gives you a lot of experience, and it just helps you a lot.”

Mühl lit up when talking about the program. She also participated in that Tampa event and noted there’s a significant difference between being seen on tape and being able to actually play in front of coaches. Not only was the basketball experience important, but she developed relationships with coaches and players that have lasted.

“What they’ve built, what they’ve done for so many players, not just me,” Mühl said. “And I will forever be thankful for them because they recognize so many little girls and little boys across the world that will never get the opportunity and that will never get the platform to be seen by all these big coaches and big teams. I feel like all of them succeed in some way.

“I’m just thankful and glad that I was recognized by those people. And I still have great relationships with them today, and I will forever. I mean, that’s my family always.”

The relationships go both ways. Look no further than Connecticut, with Edwards and Mühl as shining examples. Redshirt freshman Jana El Alfy is a native of Cairo and was part of Basketball Without Borders.

For Auriemma, the program could be a silver lining to a Final Four loss. He remembers losing to Notre Dame and having the time to go with his staff to go check out the event where Edwards and Mühl were playing.

“It’s just an incredible relationship that they have,” Auriemma said. “Those two guys, that’s where it all started.”

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