March Madness has international flair for many women’s teams

UConn’s Lou Lopez Senechal, center left, and Dorka Juhasz, center right, hold the Big East Championship trophy as they celebrate with teammate after defeating Villanova in an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the Big East Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Uncasville, Conn.
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

By PAT EATON-ROBB AP Sports Writer

When star guard Paige Bueckers went down with a season-ending knee injury last August, UConn went searching far and wide for a late addition to its roster.

The Huskies found one overseas in Inês Bettencourt, a point guard from Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores Islands. An assistant coach had noticed her playing at the Division B U18 European Championships.

A couple of months later, the Huskies announced the signing of a player they hope will be their next dominant forward: Jana El Alfy, who is 6-foot-4 and from Egypt. She enrolled in January and joined the team but will not play until next season.

The Big East champions are headed to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed with six international players on the roster after having just 10 others since Geno Auriemma began coaching the team in 1985.

“There was very little video of them back then,” Auriemma said. “Today, we have video and those kids have video of everything; they see everything. They watch every one of our games and we have a chance to see them during the summer more because there’s more international competitions.”

“It’s not the answer to everything,” he added. “But in certain situations it is, for us, the exact right way to go.”

It’s also a trend across women’s college basketball.

Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker handles the ball against UCLA forward Emily Bessoir during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the Pac-12 women’s tournament, Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Las Vegas.AP Photo/David Becker

The NCAA, citing numbers provided by FIBA, said there were 731 international women playing Division I college basketball in 2022, up nearly 350% from 212 in 2012.

Pac-12 Tournament champion Washington State, a No. 5 seed, has nine international players on its roster, including all five starters.

Johanna Teder, a senior guard from Estonia, said she thinks there is something in the makeup of players willing to go halfway around the world to pursue their dreams that has contributed to her team’s success.

“It’s a big decision,” she said. “Us internationals, we’re more experienced and like independent, if that makes sense. So, maturity plays a big role.”

South Florida won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title and is a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tourney, with eight international players.

USF coach Jose Fernandez has been recruiting heavily overseas for the last two decades. He said he started looking to Europe and elsewhere because his program was having a hard time competing with bigger names in college basketball for top players in the U.S.

What he found, he said, is a bunch of very talented kids who were often more emotionally and intellectually prepared for college basketball than their American counterparts.

“I don’t think I’ve had an international player ever graduate with less than a 3.5 GPA, which is amazing with English being their second language,” he said. “There’s also there’s no entitlement, right? A lot of these international recruits they’re not getting two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight pairs of shoes, and four or five different jerseys and, and, and getting treated like American high school prospects are treated as eighth, ninth and 10th graders.”

He said he used to see three or four other U.S. college coaches and international competitions but now sees about 40 or 50. El Alfy began getting noticed by U.S. college coaches as a member of her national team, which is coached by her father, while attending camps sponsored by the NBA.

UConn’s Dorka Juhasz (14) shoots over Villanova’s Zanai Jones (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the Big East Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Uncasville, Conn.AP Photo/Jessica Hill

“They really helped me a lot with everything, especially with their camps all around the world, not just in Africa,” she said. “I was able to like go to Australia and also be on a different environment and different culture. I got to improve on myself and just getting the experience to be there is just something that I’m grateful for.”

The NBA, which has been running its residential NBA Academy for male international players for years, began sponsoring camps for elite international girls in 2018 and has held camps in India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S.

Chris Ebersole, associate vice president of the NBA and head of the league’s Elite Basketball programs, said the idea is to gather the top talent from around the world and expose them to great coaching and opportunities while educating them about their options.

“We’ve seen that there’s actually a ton of untapped potential in terms of international women’s basketball, through those Basketball Without Borders camps in Africa, in Europe and Latin America and in Asia,” he said.

About 40 players in Division I have come through those camps, he said, including UConn’s El Alfy, Nika Mühl (Croatia) and Aaliyah Edwards (Canada).

Mühl said the camps helped her make the decision to attend college rather than go straight to professional basketball in Europe.

“It gave me a little glimpse of like, what life in America would be, you know, different people from different cultures playing together, which is what we have here,” she said. “But ultimately, the thing that made me come here is UConn itself and coach Geno Auriemma. There’s nothing else like the history and the culture of this place.”

Lou Lopez Sénéchal, a Mexican national who grew up in France, spent four years at Fairfield before transferring to UConn for a graduate season.

She said for her and other international players, the draw of playing in the United States had a lot to do with being able to stay in school and play with people her own age, rather than going pro and competing against older women.

“It comes also from being curious, wanting to travel, wanting to discover a new country, and not just wanting to stay in your own world and kind of like getting out of your comfort zone,” she said.

Fernandez said there are many things that make the U.S. more attractive for international players than playing for a club or professional team closer to home. He noted that “with ESPN+ and everything else,” parents can watch their kids from afar.

Dorka Juhász (Hungary), who transferred from Ohio State before the 2021-22 season, said the international students have formed a bond a UConn. The older ones, she said, help the younger ones deal with issues that arise, such as homesickness, doing taxes, visas and how to get celebrity endorsement deals without jeopardizing their status.

“It’s good to have somebody to rely on and you’re not the only one,” she said. “It’s also good to see that UConn loves international players. Just seeing so many other faces that are here from different countries, and how they’re loving it here. I think that’s just showing how much they care about us here.”