Sacrifices paying off for international players in NCAA women’s tournament

Hailey Brown Michigan Tennessee NCAA Tournament
Posted at 4:11 PM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 16:11:40-04

Michigan’s Hailey Brown says she came very close to opting out of this women’s basketball season.

The 6-foot-1 senior forward from Hamilton, Ontario, was struggling with a fear of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions she faced as a Canadian with the border being closed.

“She’s battled with that, with her family being away,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They haven’t been able to be here at all this season. So she’s by herself and she decided to live by herself to be away from the COVID as much as possible.”

Brown had several heart-to-heart talks with Barnes Arico before finally deciding that playing this season would be worth the sacrifices.

“The thing that drove me back is the team that we have and the things that I believed in, she believed in and my teammates believed that we could do,” Brown said.

Brown was a key factor in the Wolverines second-round win over Tennessee, scoring 1 4 points in the 70-55 victory, sending Michigan (16-5) to its first-ever Sweet 16 and a date with Baylor on Saturday.

She is among a group of international players who have overcome the obstacles that come with being a foreign player during a pandemic and will take the court this weekend.

UConn has three of them in Canadian forward Aaliyah Edwards and guards Nika Muhl, who is from Croatia and Anna Makurat from Poland. The Huskies play Iowa on Saturday.

Coach Geno Auriemma said the toughest part was getting them to the United States in time to play this season. He said that was touch-and-go, especially for his freshmen, Edwards and Muhl, who were told they needed to be enrolled in in-person classes to qualify for a visa.

“A lot of the embassies overseas weren’t operating at full strength or even open, so it was very difficult for some of these kids,” he said. “And then, all the restrictions that were placed on what kind of classes you had to have and each university operating differently as to how they were going to conduct their classes.”

Once here, homesickness and language barriers became issues for some international players as well as the inability to travel home on breaks or have family travel to them, players and coaches said.

“You go home, there’s a good chance you’re not coming back,” Auriemma said.

Georgia Tech, has four international players, led by Italian forward Lorela Cubaj, who has put up double-doubles in both of the Yellow Jackets tournament games. She had 14 points and 10 rebounds in the overtime win against Stephen F. Austin, then put up 21 points and 12 rebounds against West Virginia.

She will joined in Sunday’s game against top-seeded South Carolina by starters, Nerea Hermosa from Spain and Finnish guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, as well as Spanish forward Aixa Wone Aranaz.

Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner said she’s found that her international players tend to be more mature for their age and can handle being away from home.

But Yellow Jacket’s senior guard Kierra Fletcher said everyone also makes it a point to create a family atmosphere, with such gestures as a team holiday gathering for all of the athletes who couldn’t make it home over winter break.

And with some fans being allowed to travel to San Antonio for the Sweet 16, that has become even more important.

“I know it’s probably tough for them that they’re families can’t be here physically to watch the games,” she said. “But, we just let them know that we love and support them, because they are making a huge sacrifice choosing to come here overseas.”