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Icelander Sara Hinriksdottir finds comfort zone, stars for Canisius

Sara Hinriksdottir still desperately misses her twin sister and the seafood dishes her father cooks back in her homeland of Iceland.

Yet her transition to life as an American college basketball player has taken a great leap forward in her second season for Canisius College.

The 6-foot-1 sophomore has turned into one of the better players in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. She proved it again Wednesday by scoring 22 points to lead the Golden Griffins to a 65-57 victory over Niagara.

“Coming from small Iceland to America is a big change,” Hinriksdottir said. “Not only is it a different country, but college in a different language is tough. The basketball is different. The speed, and everybody is a lot stronger and taller.”

Henriksdottir was a bit player as a freshman last season, averaging 5.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 12 minutes a game.

This season she ranks sixth in the MAAC in scoring at 15.2 ppg, and she’s averaging 31 minutes and 5.4 rebounds a game.

“I feel more confident,” Hinriksdottir said. “I’ve always been this player, but in the summer I worked hard and I feel now I’m in the flow more.”

Four years ago, a good player from Iceland fell in the lap of Canisius coach Terry Zeh. Margret Halfdanardottir longed to play college basketball in America and pursued Canisius because it has an animal behavior program. She wants to be a veterinarian. She sent videos of her games to the Griffs, and Zeh offered her a scholarship.

Halfdanardottir, a junior guard, is the Griffs’ No. 3 scorer. But in watching her videos, Zeh kept noticing Hinriksdottir playing for an opposing team. Zeh did some research. He sent an assistant coach to Romania the following summer to scout Hinriksdottir playing for the Iceland national team in the Under-18 Division B World Championships.

Hinriksdottir had dreamed of playing in the United States, too, and was sold on Canisius. Leaving her family, especially her twin sister, Briet, was difficult.

“You’re leaving your family, your twin sister, so you know a kid really loves basketball if they’re going to do that,” Zeh said.

Even though Hinriksdottir speaks English fluently, it’s her second language, which contributed to shyness last season.

“She was always bashful about it,” Zeh said. “She didn’t want to speak much because she was afraid she was going to mess it up. Her English was good. But speaking it and studying it at a collegiate level is a whole different ballgame.”

Her mother works for Iceland Air, so traveling home is not an expense. What does she miss most about home besides friends and family?

“Food,” she said. “I feel like the food at home is healthier. My dad is a great cook, and I love fish, all seafood.”

There’s a lot to love about Hinriksdottir’s game. She has a good jump shot and she can drive to the rim with determination.

“She’s very versatile, which is a matchup problem for a lot of people because she can shoot the three but she’s also very good with getting downhill and getting to the basket and finishing a lot of different ways,” said Niagara coach Jada Pierce. “She has really nice hang time.”

Hinriksdottir, whose first name is pronounced Sah-da, worked hard over the summer on finishing.

“That’s what I worked on the most, finishing strong, because at home I didn’t have to,” she said. “I was taller than everybody.”

“We talked to her last year about ‘body on, ball away,’” Zeh said. “So I sent her pictures last year of LeBron, because he’s the ultimate at putting your body on the defense and the ball away from the defense. That’s what you see she’s doing. To her credit, she’s been working on it for a year.”

Hinriksdottir hit double figures for the 16th time in 18 games.

The win moved Canisius to 4-5 in the MAAC and 5-13 overall. Niagara fell to 2-7 and 5-13. Niagara got 20 points from star forward Victoria Rampado. But Canisius’ packed-in defense made her work for it. She was 7 of 20 from the field.

Halfdanardottir scored 15 for the Griffs, who had 18 assists on 22 field goals.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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