ALBANY – Courtney Wilkins didn't give much thought to playing basketball at a college in the United States. The native of Melbourne, Australia, knew there were opportunities, but it just didn't seem like the path for her.
Instead, she was ready to join the Australian navy when she got a call from University at Buffalo assistant coach Cherie Cordoba.
"I heard of some people who were going, but I never thought I would go," Wilkins said. "I just didn't think I would.
"I didn't want to go to university in Australia because I didn't know what I wanted to study straight after high school. I wasn't going to go [to] university and waste the money and study something I didn't want to study so I was going to join the navy. I applied for it and I think it was three or five days later Coach Cherie called me and said, 'Do you want to come?' And I was like 'Yeah!' So I came. And I'm glad I did."
Buffalo is pretty happy with her decision as well.
Wilkins hit some key 3-pointers for the Bulls in their NCAA Tournament first-round victory against South Florida. Her shooting ability has helped push Buffalo to its first Sweet 16 berth and a school record 29-5 record.
The redshirt junior is one of four Australians on the roster along with Katherine and Liisa Ups, from Wollongong, and Stephanie Reid, from Melbourne. There has been an upswing in Australians playing NCAA women's basketball, with 70 on Division I rosters at the start of the season. Nine Aussies will be playing in the Sweet 16.
The Buffalo quartet are joined by Anneli Maley (Oregon), Chloe Bibby (Mississippi State), Chantel Horvat (UCLA), Kristy Wallace (Baylor) and Alanna Smith (Stanford).
"Aussies are taking over," Liisa Ups said, flashing some of that sarcastic Aussie wit. "No one knew it was happening, but we did."
Australia ranks second to Canada among foreign countries producing players across all divisions in women's basketball, according to website US Basket.
According to the NCAA, 352 international players were among the 5,000 Division I players for the 2016-17 season. That represents 7 percent, the highest percentage of international players since the figures were initially tracked in the 1999-2000. There were 110 players, representing 2.4 percent of the total, that season.
UB's plan wasn't to have a roster filled with Australians, but it worked out that way. The Bulls' international roster also includes a Nigerian and two Canadians.
Education and opportunity
Cordoba, a longtime assistant coach to UB's Felisha Legette-Jack for parts of her time at Hofstra, Indiana and then Buffalo, came to the U.S. from Australia, first playing at a junior college in northern California and then at UNLV. She played professionally for almost a decade in Australia and Europe and got into coaching in 2004. She left coaching in 2008 to start a family and then joined Legette-Jack at UB in 2015.
Like Cordoba, each of UB's Australian players has her own story, but the coach sees a common thread – education and opportunity.
"It's hard to get into university and it's very expensive," Cordoba said of Australian higher education. "So now they have an opportunity – oh I can play a sport, it doesn't have to be basketball, and now get a free education, the experience of living abroad and America isn't so crazy different than Australia. Obviously there's differences, but for the most part we love it.
"We run with every opportunity that we get for the most part and live life to the utmost. When it comes to basketball, this is where the world wants to be. And we're getting to be a part of it now."
The world might want to be playing basketball at an American college, but how did four Aussies end up at Buffalo?
The Bulls needed to fill out their roster with quality players who might have flown under the radar. Cordoba connected with some friends back home and with an Aussie recruiting service to find the Ups sisters and Reid. She then saw Wilkins play along with Reid at a tournament in Australia. Wilkins and Reid played on the same club team.
The Ups sisters arrived at the start of the fall semester in 2014. Wilkins and Reid graduated from prep school that November and arrived weeks later. Thirteen days after coming to America, Reid was in the starting lineup and has been a fixture since. She started 17 consecutive games as a freshman, started every game as a sophomore and junior and 30 of 34 games this season.
"I had some other options, like Utah State, but I really wanted Buffalo and I wanted to go with Courtney," said Reid, who played on a team with Wilkins in Melbourne. "So I waited and waited and I was driving to school and had to pull over because Courtney was calling me. 'They want you! You have to call Coach Cherie!' I pulled over and called her and then I FaceTimed with Coach Jack and she offered me. I didn't even talk to my mom. I just knew this was what I wanted to do. I love this program. I had to say yes."
'We took it and ran with it'
The fit at UB could not have been better for Liisa and Katherine Ups.
"When we were 14 or 15, we started to see some other Australian players go over to college," Liisa Ups said. "You wouldn’t know anything that it was about, you'd just hear that so-and-so went over for college. And I wanted to do that. Once we found out about [it], that's what we wanted to do."
At first, the sisters wanted to go separately.
"We just thought we had spent our whole lives together, why not do something separate," Liisa said. But a high school coach pointed out they would be 10,000 miles away from home and wouldn't it be nice to be together?
"All of a sudden it's like, 'You're so right,' " Liisa said. "We're going to be so far away from home. Then UB was one of the schools that offered us both and we took it and ran with it."
Ran with it they did, helping to build Buffalo into a destination for great basketball players. It started two years ago, when Ups was a sophomore and the Bulls made their first NCAA Tournament after winning the Mid-American Conference title.
The story hasn't ended yet, with the the 11th-seeded Bulls facing defending national champion and No. 2 seed South Carolina at 11:30 a.m. Saturday (that's 2:30 a.m. in Australia) in Albany's Times Union Center.
And whenever and however it ends, the journey to America for basketball has forever changed the Australian players.
"I was just laughing with coach at practice this morning," Liisa Ups said. "When we made NCAAs the first time two years ago, we were practicing at Ohio State and I could barely walk, I was that scared. The fear crippled me so bad I could barely walk and now I'm here just chucking up shots and laughing.
"I'm so much more comfortable in my skin. I'm not playing any more than I did as a sophomore., but you just become more comfortable with who you are. You know exactly what you bring to the team. Four years teaches you, well, everything."