Kiwi Freshmen Flourish in US College Hoops

A freshman in the American college athletics system is one playing their first season of collegiate sport.

Stands to reason then that the freshmen, competing for places against players three or four years older, stronger, fitter and more experienced may struggle to make an impact. It seems the women and men who make up the New Zealand basketball freshmen, most of which are alumni of the Basketball New Zealand development squads and junior teams, are bucking the trend.

There are more than 100 Kiwis on basketball scholarships in the United States, with many of them having had the start of their seasons deferred until January due to Covid-19 concerns.

But others are more fortunate their seasons are underway. Here we take a look at some fine early season form being shown by the Kiwi freshmen, three of whom have already earned Conference Player of the Week Awards.

It’s difficult to imagine any New Zealander in US College who has made an immediate impact as great as Sky Sport Tall Ferns Charlisse Leger-Walker.

The youngest ever Tall Fern has taken to NCAA Division I basketball like a duck to water. Playing alongside sister Krystal, she has averaged 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, three assists and 2.6 steals in her first five outings for Washington State playing a whopping 154 minutes out of a possible 160 during the opening four games. Not surprisingly Leger-Walker claimed the Pac-12 Conference Freshman of the Week accolade with her 49 points in the opening two games.

WSU Cougars Head Coach Kamie Ethridge, with her team three wins from four, was purring with delight when talking about the St Peter’s College Cambridge alumni.

“She’s the complete-package player and can really affect the game in a lot of ways.

“I’ve not been in a gym with someone who has an IQ and a feel for the game like she does.”

Leger-Walker’s 18.8ppg makes her the second-leading scorer in the Pac-12 and gives her the fourth-highest scoring average for a freshman in all of NCAA Division I Women’s basketball.

Tayla Dalton, a 2019 Junior Tall Fern teammate of Leger-Walker, scored a team high 16 points in her first outing for St Mary’s College, California Gaels. The Gaels (with Kiwis Jade Kirisome and Amy West also in their line-up) went down 87-79 to Virginia Commonwealth in their season opener.

Since then Dalton has averaged 24 minutes in her first six games tallying 9.8 points per game – her most recent effort a season high 18 points in the win against Nevada. Dalton leads St Mary’s in steals having claimed eight.

2019 Aon U19 Nationals MVP Emme Shearer is at the University of Portland.

The former North Harbour teammate of Dalton scored 14 points (4/5FG, 5/6FT) in her first game for the UP Pilots as they won 82-70 at Seattle. She also enjoyed a 13 points and 5 steals outing against Northwest University.

Currently, after six appearances for the Pilots, Shearer is averaging 7.2 points and a couple of steals. Averaging 17 minutes a game she has played more time than any other Portland bench player.

Named to the 2019 Aon U19 Nationals Tournament Team alongside Shearer was Canterbury’s Helen Matthews who earned a start for Wofford College in their first game of the season. The Terriers beat Winthrop 65-50 with Matthews putting together a fine stats line of 9 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists.

The ex Kaiapoi High and Canterbury Wildcats guard has impressed sufficiently to start all six games for Wofford averaging 7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 26 minutes per outing.

It hasn’t just been the women making a first-up impression in Division I basketball.

Sam Mennenga underlined his potential in his very first outing for Davidson College Wildcats. The former Westlake forward was close to a double-double posting 12 points (4/6FG) and 9 rebounds as the Wildcats beat High Point University 82-73.

Following that with a 17 points haul against University of Texas, Mennenga, who played at the FIBA U19 World Championships in Greece in 2019, was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week.

He has since gone on to start in all eight games for the 5-3 Wildcats.

James Moors, a former Harbour, Westlake Boys and Junior Tall Blacks World Champs teammate of Mennenga, is in his first season at Colorado State University. In just his second game for CSU Moors scored 12 points on 5 from 6 shooting as the Rams beat Northern Arizona University.

Canterbury and Cashmere High School product Thomas Webley has started all seven games for University of Hartford. The Cantabrian forward, averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds per game, had his best outing against Central Connecticut State scoring 10 points. That 10-point outing plus a solid 9 points and 6 rebounds against #12 Villanova University earned Webley the American East Conference Rookie of the Week honours.

In NCAA Division II play former New Zealand age-group representative Tessa Talo-Tomokino scored her first career points for Northeastern State in the Riverhawks 82-74 win against Missouri Western.

The former Harbour and Mount Albert Grammar player redshirted the 2019-20 season, her first at Northeastern, so it has been a long wait for the shooting guard to get on court. She scored 4 points making both of her shots in 14 minutes of action.

Since then Talo-Tomokino has started six of the seven games played by Northestern totalling 18 points.

University of Hawaii at Hilo, a Division II school, took on local Division I rivals Hawaii last week and Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones took the opportunity to impress. In their only game of the season to date the former St Pat’s College Kilbernie guard made a highly impressive debut for Hilo posting a team high 18 points on 7 from 12 shooting. An NBL champion with the Wellington Saints in 2019, Tait-Jones also snared 10 rebounds and 3 steals in an 89-66 loss.

Reihana Maxwell-Topia (University of St Francis, Illinois) and Mac Stodart (Concordia University, Irvine), both members of the 2019 New Zealand U17 team, made unique starts to their college careers – both featured in double-overtime games.

Stodart came up with 7 points and 3 rebounds as Concordia edged Westmont 101-99. The Invercargill native followed that with another start in the loss to Pepperdine, producing 5 points and 4 rebounds.

Unfortunately St Francis were defeated 77-71 in their double OT opener as Maxwell-Topia played 23 minutes for the Fighting Saints producing 5 points and 3 rebounds against Bellevue University. The Fighting Saints play in the NAIA (National association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and have made a promising 5-2 start to the season with M-T starting in four of those fixtures.

In just his second game for Milligan University Buffaloes, who also play in the NAIA, former Rongotai College guard Finn McClure posted a double-double of 16 points and 10 assists. His 16 points included four made threes from six attempts.

We wish all the New Zealand student-athletes in the States a Happy Christmas and a safe and successful 2021.