SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Spain — Kitija Laksa and Digna Strautmane, along with about a half dozen other college players, are getting quite the education on the court playing against the best players at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
All of them hope to bring their experiences back to school next week when they return to campuses across the U.S.
College players competing in the World Cup or even the Olympics isn’t a new phenomenon. Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore played in the World Cup for the U.S. when they were still at UConn. While the U.S. has no college players on the roster this time, other countries are able to bolster their teams with them.
Laksa (South Florida) and Strautmane (Syracuse) play for Latvia. Canada has Bridget Carleton (Iowa State) and Shay Colley (Michigan State). Eleanna Christinaki (Maryland) and Mariella Fasoula (Vanderbilt) play for Greece. Stanford’s Alanna Smith is on Australia, to name a few.
“It’s been an amazing and crazy experience and I’m glad I’m here and had a chance to play against the best in the world and play on the biggest stage,” Laksa said.
Latvia, which is playing in its first World Cup, has lost its two games by a combined four points and finishes off pool play against the U.S. on Tuesday night. Latska and Strautmane were excited for a chance to play against the Americans.
“They are the best players in the world and I’ve looked up to some of them,” Laksa said. “I want to play professional when I’m done in college after this year and want to see where I am at this point.”
Unlike their professional teammates, most of the college players have already started school for the semester, so they’ve had to find time between games and practices to study and do their work while in Spain.
“Some of my professors have been really nice helping me out and letting me do my in-class work while I’m here,” Laksa said.
Strautmane echoed her teammates’ thoughts.
“The professors have been really accommodating,” she said. “We talked about this last spring so I was prepared for it.”
Carleton and Colley said that school started about a month ago, and their professors also have been very understanding.
“We had plenty of time to plan ahead, so that definitely helped,” Carleton said.
Smith is more fortunate because Stanford didn’t start class until Monday.
“I won’t be missing as much class time,” she said. “I’ve really learned a lot from my teammates and hopefully I can take some of that back to Stanford.”
Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer was happy Smith was getting the opportunity to play.
“Alanna is a senior and one of our leaders and we’re going to depend on her a lot this season,” VanDerveer said. “For her to have this experience playing alongside and against the world’s best players is absolutely invaluable and the lessons she’s learning will serve our team well. We’ve been having some great workouts and can’t wait to get her back on campus and in the mix.”
Many of the college teams are starting official practice this week. South Florida isn’t beginning for a few more days as coach Jose Fernandez is in Spain watching Laska play.
“He and I have been in contact and it’s great he’s here,” Laksa said.
Most of the players will get a little time to unwind before starting practice.
“Coach Merchant has already said I can have a few days to relax and be with my family,” Colley said.
When they do return to their NCAA teams, all of the players will have great stories to tell. So far, Yacine Diop has the best one to tell her new teammates at Louisville. She is headed there as a graduate transfer after playing at Pitt. Diop helped Senegal beat Latvia on Sunday and advance out of pool play for the first time in the country’s history. In fact, it was the first time in FIBA history that an African team won a preliminary round game.