May 31, 2011
By Josh Reich
Jelena Vucinic says living in the United States is sometimes like the movies, but she has nothing but good memories about her first year on a basketball scholarship to Louisiana Tech University.
Vucinic arrived back in New Zealand last week and stepped straight on to the court to help the Harbour under-21 team win the national championships in Auckland.
She landed in Nelson on Sunday, and has been catching up with friends and family, watching the NBA playoffs and getting a bit of court time with the Waimea Wizards.
Vucinic, 19, has just completed the first of four years at Louisiana Tech and her first season with the Lady Techsters women's basketball team.
Under respected coach Teresa Weatherspoon, it is one of the most well-regarded programmes in the country.
She said basketball in the States was like nothing she had experienced.
"Everything - the team, the coaches, just how professional it is.
"One day we had 7000 people at the game. For a women's basketball game - I've never heard of it."
As expected, as the newest member of the squad, her time on court was limited.
After appearing in a couple of pre-season exhibition matches, she played in 11 further matches for a total of 52 minutes, hitting five field goals and three three-pointers, and nabbing four rebounds.
She made a positive impression both on and off the court, and earned the Lady Techster Award, which goes to the player who best exemplifies the essence of what being a Lady Techster is all about.
Vucinic was noted for showing incredible work ethic on the court every day in practice despite limited playing time, while also proving to be a role model off it.
The team won their conference and placed second at the conference tournament, earning a spot in the NCAA playoffs.
Vucinic, who went to Waimea College, said the basketball was "more physical, intense and disciplined" than anything she had experienced before, and she had to raise her game to match it.
At last week's under-21 tournament, she was called for fouls twice before she had time to think, showing that the level she had been at in the States was quite different to that back home.
"My defence was so good at the tournament just because I'm now used to playing against really strong and fast players."
The Lady Techsters received a boost recently when star player Adrienne Johnson was drafted to WNBA team the Connecticut Sun, and with several senior players leaving, Vucinic is hopeful of getting more minutes on court next season.
The Tall Ferns have a busy schedule this year, and Vucinic is also keen on getting more experience on the international stage after she made her debut against Japan last year.
She goes into camp on June 10, from which a team will be selected to travel to China.
After that, another trial will be held before the Oceania championships, which double as an Olympic qualifier.
Vucinic has cleared her potential international commitments with Louisiana Tech, and said "Coach Spoon" was happy for her to play, given that she arrived at Ruston in good shape after her last trip with the national team.
"She knows she won't have to worry about me.
"She's just happy that I'll be playing basketball and not on a summer holiday," she said with a laugh.
Nelson is planning to enter a team in the Women's Basketball Championship, and Vucinic is keen to play with them after a couple of seasons with Taranaki.