Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa is one of many Kiwi hoopers who had their final American collegiate season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The St Patrick’s College, Kilbirnie old boy was a four-year starter at Sacramento State University in California, which played in the Division I Big Sky Conference. He finished his career in the school’s top-10 in a variety of statistical categories; second in starts (108/117), fourth in steals (149), sixth in three-pointers made (187) and eighth in assists (302). He also managed 941 career points, which ranks 20th all-time for the Hornets.
Mauriohooho-Le’afa says the comradery and travel were the biggest highlights in his time away.
“I would say the brotherhood during college. Everyone is close to each other.
“It’s all you got when you’re going through 5am conditioning sessions and that helps build character and helps bring everyone together.
“Playing in different arenas all over the country is also another highlight, overall college was an amazing and fun experience that I’ll never forget.”
His career at Sacramento State got off to a great start. He started 28 of the 29 games he played and averaged 25 minutes per outing.
An indication of just how unusual those figures are for a freshman is best illustrated by comparing them to the Kiwi NCAA D1 freshman class of 2019-20: Kruz Perrott-Hunt, Anzac Rissetto and Max de Geest. The trio were all Junior Tall Blacks (Perrott-Hunt was a Tall Black) and all had strong New Zealand National Basketball League experience before heading Stateside. Between them, they averaged four starts over 20 games with 11 minutes of court time.
Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to some of the best basketball players Aotearoa has produced. Legend Kirk Penney was a prolific college player in his tenure at the University of Wisconsin, accumulating 1454 points in his 127 appearances for the Badgers.
Fellow point guard Mark Dickel played 133 times for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. ‘Sparky’ averaged nine assists his senior year (a league-leading effort that year) and set up his teammates a record 18 times in one game (a Mountain West Conference record).
Most recently, Canterbury Ram Jack Salt made 106 starts from 127 possible occasions for the University of Virginia. 37 of those games came in his final year which was capped off with an NCAA D1 men’s basketball championship.
Mauriohooho-Le’afa credits his family for putting him in the position he is today and helping him achieve his goals.
“Obviously, my family was number one and always will be.
“They were my biggest support system as well as my friends. Shawn Beck was the person who helped me get to Sacramento State and I am thankful for him as well.”
Those who kept an eye on the high school and age-grade representative scene knew that the Hutt Valley product was always bound for big things.
Strong performances both at school and for Hutt Valley earnt him the opportunity to play for the Wellington Saints in the Sal’s NBL. He went on to play 44 times across three seasons. He also became one of the youngest to ever play for the Tall Blacks at 16-years-old.
When asked what advice he would give to those looking to pursue a college career, Mauriohooho-Leafa says it is important to have love at the centre of it all.
“Love what you do, do what you love and love who you do it for.
“Simple man, just have fun with it. It is a great experience and a lot of fun, but it is not easy, so you definitely have to work for everything you do on and off the court.
“Of course, you’ll miss your family and friends back home but it’s once in a lifetime opportunity that you get to go to college and get a free education while playing the sport you love.”
The Wellington product is still in America at the moment and is having to wait for the craziness of COVID-19 to finish before planning his next move. He is primarily eyeing a stint back home or in Australia, but Europe is also on the cards.