Testing international waters, No. 2 UConn women open NCAA tournament play on Saturday
Mar. 17—STORRS — Ines Bettencourt was originally scheduled to attend Northwest Florida State College, where the weather is more like that in her hometown of Sao Miguel, Portugal.
Instead, following a season-ending injury to UConn All-American Paige Bueckers on Aug. 1 last year, Bettencourt received a late offer from the 11-time national champion Huskies.
She arrived in Storrs on the first day of classes for the fall semester. She didn't own a winter coat. She had never seen snow before. She had never been to the United States. Her favorite U.S. food: "nothing," she said.
"Being international is really hard at the beginning," Bettencourt said Friday. "The first couple months were a little bit hard. As the time started passing by, everything came into place. It felt right."
Second-seeded UConn (29-5) begins play in the NCAA tournament at 3 p.m. Saturday at Gampel Pavilion, taking on No. 15 Vermont (25-6) in the Seattle 3 Region (Ch. 8). The winner takes on either No. 7 Baylor or No. 10 Alabama in the second round Monday.
Bettencourt, a 5-foot-9 freshman guard, wasn't the only international player on UConn's roster, however. She was the fifth. With the arrival of Jana El Alfy from Cairo, Egypt, a member of next year's freshman class who enrolled at UConn a semester early, the number is now six.
On Senior Night, Feb. 27 against Xavier, there were four national anthems played.
Graduate transfers Dorka Juhasz hails from Pecs, Hungary, and Lou Lopez Senechal from Grenoble, France, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. UConn honored their heritage by featuring all three anthems in addition to the Star-Spangled Banner. Juhasz and Lopez Senechal were escorted by their parents, who were seeing them play in a UConn uniform for the first time.
The team's other international players are junior Aaliyah Edwards from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, who was a member of the Canadian Olympic women's basketball team in Tokyo, and junior Nika Muhl, the hard-nosed point guard from Zagreb, Croatia.
Bettencourt, who didn't turn 18 until Sept. 29, jokingly refers to Juhasz and Lopez Senechal as her grandmothers, but in all seriousness, she knows she always has a reference point for her never-ending supply of questions.
The team, with the players sometimes separated from their parents by oceans, has a familial bond. The kitchen staff at the Werth Family Champions Center has prepared them international meals, with foods from their respective countries (Bettencourt, whose country borders the Atlantic Ocean, prefers fish).
The players, from at home and abroad, take interest in learning each other's languages, including the swear words.
On opening night against Northeastern, UConn's starting lineup featured players from five different countries for the first time in program history with Juhasz, Lopez Senechal, Edwards, Muhl and Azzi Fudd, who hails from Arlington, Virginia.
"I'm really happy to be a part of the first international starting lineup and just seeing how much they've turned toward the world and Europe and started recruiting other kids," said Muhl, the second UConn player from Croatia, joining Tihana Abrlic (1997-99).
"Now we have Jana from Egypt. They brought Ines from Portugal. It's amazing to see how many kids are getting opportunities that maybe they wouldn't get before. ... We keep trying foods from different cultures and we learn so much from each other. So many different mentalities, cultures, languages, it's just a great experience for all of us."
Chris Dailey, in her 38th season as UConn's associate head coach, said that drawing international players to the program is no different than recruiting players from the U.S. Players tend to gravitate to "kids like themselves."
"I think kids, when they come to a place, they have to feel comfortable," Dailey said. "How they feel and that comfort level when they come is usually the selling point in terms of where they want to go.
"Certainly with Nika (being on the roster), (the international players) are aware of our program. They see it as a great opportunity."
Dailey created some intrasquad contests for the Huskies this season and broke the teams into the United States vs. the world. Muhl claims the practice was discontinued because "the world is way ahead right now." Dailey says that's absolutely not true.
Dailey said there's no exact science to recruiting internationally.
"A lot of it happens when you go over to see other people," Dailey said. "The U.S. always has a team and we're recruiting some kids on that team but there are plenty of other countries. You're always looking.
"I just think things fall into place sometimes. Sometimes somebody just fits, somebody knows somebody that knows somebody that gets you in, you have a connection there."
In Bettencourt's case, she was playing for Portugal in the B Division of the U18 European Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. She had a good tournament and within an hour, UConn assistant Morgan Valley said, someone had turned the attention of Valley and fellow assistant Jamelle Elliott to Bettencourt.
The international players all carry a pride for their home countries.
Before she was committed to basketball, Lopez Senechal used to ski in Grenoble, which hosted the 1968 Winter Olympics. Edwards, from hockey crazy Canada, has never played hockey but she knows how to ice skate, she said.
"I'm blessed to be a part of that experience (playing for the Olympic team)," Edwards said. "I'm trying to run in back for Paris, 2024. It was one of my bucket lists. It was a dream come true.
"All the accolades I've won and everything I've achieved here at UConn, I'm just grateful. Not only am I bringing myself up and my team up, I'm bringing Canada up with me and putting Canada on the map and showing people from back home, all the little girls, the next generation, that it's possible to do things here in a different country and to not limit yourself."
Bettencourt said with a laugh that her teammates now wish she was the version of herself from when she first arrived ... quieter.
UConn will take a European trip this summer with stops in Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
"I think it's great to have a home away from home," Edwards said. "I think that the family thing is what we connect with the most because we don't see our family as often," she said. "Even when my family comes, they treat everyone else like their second daughters, as well.
"And the UConn fans have been showing so much love to me since I got here, as if I'm American, so I love it."
No. 2 UConn vs. No. 15 Vermont
Location: Gampel Pavilion
Tip: 3 p.m. (Ch. 8)
Records: Vermont 25-6, UConn 29-5.
Last game: Vermont beat Albany in the America East tournament final 38-36; UConn beat Villanova in the Big East tournament final 67-56.
Last game's starters: Vermont, 5-8 G Emma Utterback (14.0 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.2 spg), 6-1 F Anna Olson (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg), 6-1 F Delaney Richason (9.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), 5-9 G Bella Vito (3.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg), 5-8 G Catherine Gilwee (10.5 ppg, 3.1 apg).
UConn, 6-3 F Aaliyah Edwards (16.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.1 bpg), 6-5 F Dorka Juhasz (14.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.0 apg), 6-1 G/F Lou Lopez Senechal (15.7 ppg), 6-1 F Aubrey Griffin (12.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 spg), 5-10 G Nika Muhl (7.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 7.8 apg, 1.4 spg).
Noteworthy: Vermont is the America East champion, making its seventh overall NCAA appearance and its first since 2010, when the Catamounts beat Wisconsin in the first round before going on to lose to Notre Dame. Vermont is known for its defense under head coach Alisa Kresge and associate coach Dominique Bryant, holding teams to 36.5% shooting this season, 27.4% from beyond the 3-point line. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Friday that Vermont's makeup is a lot like a number of Big East teams on the Huskies' schedule. "If you saw a lot of our games in the Big East, you saw it's not always easy to score points in our league," Auriemma said. "Those teams are exceptionally well coached defensively because they have to be. When you have a team that plays defense like that, when you have a team that is committed like that, they don't have to score a lot of points. If you look at them on film and take away the Vermont jersey, you would say, 'Which team is that?' They look as good as a lot of teams that we have on our schedule." ... Seniors Delaney Richason and Emma Utterback represented Vermont at Friday's NCAA press conference. Both admitted to watching UConn play growing up. Richason's favorite member of the Huskies was Katie Lou Samuelson (both wear No. 33) and Utterback named UConn great Maya Moore. Said Kresge: "So I grew up watching Geno. He's done so much for the game. I've always been the type like, keep winning. I didn't want to change anything. I loved that. You can keep winning. Like, that is so impressive. I'm not looking forward to the day that Geno's not on the sideline. I think it's incredible what he's done for our game and what he's done for USA basketball. I'm a big fan of his." ... UConn's Aubrey Griffin, who left the Big East tournament championship game with back spasms, said she's "feeling good," headed into NCAA tournament. Griffin took part in the portion of practice the media was allowed to watch Friday, working out with the guards. ... This is the sixth time in program history that UConn has been a No. 2 seed. The Huskies are 21-4 as the No. 2 seed, including the 2004 national championship. ... Vermont has won 17 straight games. ... UConn and Vermont have matched up once before in the NCAA tournament, with UConn winning 104-65 in the first round in 2009.
— Vickie Fulkerson