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UB’s freshmen from Down Under take it one G’day at a time

Stephanie Reid is a point guard from Australia. She dreamed of playing college basketball in the United States since she was little. She also has dreamed of one day visiting Antarctica.

Reid is a freshman on the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team. Mission accomplished on both counts.

“I didn’t know it was possible to get this cold,” Reid said Thursday of the second-coldest February in Buffalo history. “I didn’t know that negative 10 degrees Celsius actually existed.”

The good news for Reid is she has three teammates who know precisely how she feels. Lo and behold, a 10,000-mile basketball pipeline has developed from Australia to UB.

UB’s women’s team has four Australians – all freshmen – on its 15-member roster.

They are here in large part because UB’s lead assistant coach, Cherie Cordoba, is a native Australian who has good contacts Down Under.

“To come this far to play, it needs to be almost like a dream,” Cordoba said. “I know when I did it, it was something I couldn’t not do. America, for most everybody else in the world, is the place to play basketball. There just aren’t the facilities and the crowds and the competition that there are in America.”

Cordoba starred at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, graduating in 1994. She played professionally in Australia and Europe for almost a decade before getting into coaching.

UB head coach Felisha Legette-Jack hired her at Hofstra in 2004, then took Cordoba with her to Indiana in 2006. Two years later, Cordoba quit to start a family. After a six-year break and the birth of two children, Cordoba was ready to return to the game. Legette-Jack brought her to UB in April.

“She’s my best friend, and I won my most games in my tenure as a coach with Cherie by my side,” Legette-Jack said. “I asked her if she was interested in getting back into the business. She said, ‘Oh God, yeah, but who’s going to hire me when I’ve been out for six years? I said, ‘Somebody who trusts you, who you show loyalty to, who won a lot of games with you.’ She said, ‘Are you talking about yourself?’ I said, ‘Without a doubt.’”

Legette-Jack says recruiting four Aussies within a year was not part of a master plan. She and Cordoba didn’t have Aussies at Indiana.

“My team is always going to look like the rainbow,” Legette-Jack said. “I like the black kid, the white kid, the rich kid, the poor kid, the foreign kid. I love we’re recruiting character kids who really stand for academics first and then basketball.”

Legette-Jack said they used their connections to get the best players they could sign, and that led them to Liisa and Katherine Ups, 5-foot-9 identical twins who signed with UB last spring. They’re from Wollongong, 50 miles south of Sydney.

Then this fall, UB signed the 5-6 Reid and 6-1 Courtney Wilkins, who played on the same club team in Melbourne. Reid and Wilkins graduated from secondary school in November and joined the UB team in January.

The weather in Sydney and Melbourne? Paradise, similar to San Diego. Not surprisingly, UB’s Aussies say weather has been a big adjustment.

What does Katherine Ups miss most about her homeland besides her family? “Waking up on a weekend and walking down to the beach, drinking a coffee and sitting on the beach. We never have cold like this. Even when it got to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, I was like, that’s the end of me.”

“I’m kind of used to it,” said Liisa Ups. “Saying negative 32 degrees Celsius, I didn’t even know that existed. Then you go outside in it and it’s like ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ ”

“I can’t lie and say I’m a fan of the weather,” Cordoba said. “But everything needs to be an experience. I was getting to the age where the summers were starting to be too hot in Las Vegas. My kids love the snow. My son just got a boomerang and he’s throwing it around and running around in the snow.”

Why did they come to Buffalo? The education and the feeling they got from Legette-Jack and Cordoba, they say.

In Australia, basketball is one of the more popular sports for women. Australia has sent about 30 players to the WNBA, and roughly 48 Aussies currently are playing Division I college basketball in America.

Australian universities do not offer scholarships to play athletics. If you’re a college student in Australia who is good at basketball, you play for a club team.

“I just got a memory box back that I had made when I was in Grade 7,” said Reid. “And one of my goals in it was to go to college in the U.S. To play at such an elite level with such elite players, coached by people such as Coach Jack, that’s just what I wanted to do.”

The Ups twins played for their all-state team, New South Wales, last year and helped it to a second-place finish in the Australian national tournament. Six women from that team are playing in America. The Ups twins drew interest from Virginia Tech. The recruitment of the other two never got to an offer stage other than Buffalo.

“As soon as we started talking to Coach Cherie, Buffalo just seemed like family,” Katherine Ups said. “All the other schools recruit you, you hear from their coach every now and then. It never seemed as much family as Buffalo did from the get-go. Being so far away from home, it was about needing that support.”

Liisa Ups said her eye-opening moment as a college athlete came when UB held a “Bulls Madness” practice with both the men’s and women’s teams in October. There was a big production, with music, lights and a couple thousand people in the stands.

“At home, we have crowds of 10 people for games,” Liisa Ups said. “We came out and there was a smoke machine, and we ran out and did some dance. I’d never seen a crowd come out to watch girls basketball like that before. And especially being in this arena. For me, it was like this is college basketball.”

“The first time I practiced with the team I got a feel of what it’s like,” Reid said. “To be among such supportive girls. I remember the day. We hung out with the team and we started practicing. This is what I want to do. This is the standard I want for myself. These are the type of girls I want to be around.”

All four are good students. The Ups twins are carrying 3.9 grade-point averages. “I got an A-minus, and I’m not happy about it,” Katherine said.

Like all freshmen, the Aussies need to develop their games.

The Ups twins are averaging about 7 minutes a game each. They have good size. Liisa Ups is a shooting guard. Katherine Ups, UB hopes, will develop into a scoring wing player. Wilkins is practicing but doesn’t figure to play this semester. The coaches are excited about the shooting ability she has for her size.

Because of a need at point guard, Reid was pressed into the lineup just 13 days after arriving from Melbourne on Dec. 28. Reid has started the last 11 games, seven of them wins.

She’s averaging 25 minutes and 4.8 points. She has provided stability, with 43 assists and 31 turnovers.

“She loves the game, loves it,” Cordoba said. “When I went to Australia to scout her, she did not go to Hawaii with her family on a family vacation so that I could see her play.”

UB, 15-11, hosts Akron on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Despite their distance from home, the Aussies’ college experience in many ways is similar to that of every other student-athlete on campus.

“The big adjustment to college is having to turn up, day in and day out,” Katherine Ups said. “Never having a day off. You get a day off, but you’re always working on your game and studying.”

Welcome to America.