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ASU Women’s Basketball: International players thriving in the desert environment

The Devils’ three international players have shown great strides and set the foundation for future seasons.

Richard Martinez/House of Sparky

Sophia Elenga, Iris Mbulito and Taya Hanson.

Three different players. Three different countries. Three different stories to tell, but all share the same basketball court during the 2018-2019 season.

No. 17 ASU’s crop of international talent has not only provided the team with a stronger rotation, but a solid foundation for the future of the Sun Devils.

“It’s becoming more global on the women’s side,” coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “We can get top talent at home, but ASU is the number one university in the country for international students. We are a global university. It just makes sense for us to be recruiting that way.”

Aside from the three international students, this year’s roster includes players from seven different states. Only senior Courtney Ekmark is an Arizona native.

Elenga transferred two years ago from Cochise College in Douglas, AZ. Prior to coming to the U.S., she grew up in Nogent Sur Oise, France.

Now in her second, and final season with the Devils, she said she has grown more comfortable with the team.

“Last year was a learning and transition season coming from Junior College to here,” Elenga explained. “I was trying to understand what the coach’s expectation of me was and my role and what I can bring to the team.”

This season, Elenga has shown her rapid adaptability. She tallied her first double-double against Arkansas and was named to the all-tournament team at the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout in Las Vegas. During that tournament, she scored a season-high 13 points against then No. 4 Louisville.

According to Elenga, there was an amusing story behind her all-tournament honor as well.

“That was so embarrassing,” said Elenga of her all-tournament selection in Vegas. “It was [senior Kianna Ibis’] birthday and I know we always do a birthday thing. I see [Director of Operations Ryan Cohan] walking down the bus and I think it is a surprise cake for Kianna. And then Charli [handed me the award]. I was very camera shy about it.”

Now with some hardware from the tournament, and in the midst of a Pac-12 season, Turner Thorne has been pleased with her junior college product as well.

“Sophia has just worked hard,” Turner Thorne said. “It is not a surprise at all to anyone in our program. She’s getting in every morning doing extra workouts. She’s so grateful to be able to play. She’s just a humble, really hard-working young lady that has a lot of passion for the game.”

Since that point, Elenga has striven to keep momentum off the bench and serve as a role model to her international counterparts.

Mbulito is from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, where for years she competed in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). This past summer, she was named the most valuable player of the FIBA U20 Women’s European Championship for her contributions in helping Spain claim the gold medal.

Mbulito’s decision to come to ASU was in large part due to Turner Thorne.

“I felt a deep connection with coach Charli,” Mbulito said. “When I did my official visit, I really liked the people, the environment and the weather. That is why I chose ASU.”

So far this season, she has had a plethora of roles, including running the offense in some rotations. She has proven not only her offensive, but her defensive ability as well.

“She grew up in the same place playing with the same players, same coaches for most of her life,” Turner Thorne said. “Coming to a completely new place, there was a good acclimation period. She’s really starting to hit her stride as far as being comfortable out there.”

Turner Thorne was not alone in the recruiting efforts. Assistant coach Angie Nelp was primarily culpable for persuading Mbulito.

“I think it is important, if you’re going to a university far away from home, that you’re going to play and that the coach wants you on the team,” Mbulito said. “It was very important to me that Charli wanted me on the team.”

As for Hanson, she hails from north of the border in Kelowna, British Columbia. She has played on the Canadian National Team since 2015, and just helped her team at the U18 FIBA championship earn the silver medal.

Hanson made a splash early on for ASU with her ability to shoot the basketball from just about anywhere on the floor, particularly from beyond the arc.

“Being international, I feel like we have other things to bring from just our prior experience of playing internationally,” Hanson explained. “It’s fun because it brings us together. Even though we are from different areas, we kind of have that connection. We are able to bounce things off of each other and help each other grow in this experience.”

Canadian players are no strangers to ASU. Former center Quinn Dornstauder was an integral part of ASU’s success during her tenure.

“She’s just such a great player and she brought so much to this program,” said Hanson of Dornstauder. “I just hope that I can do the same.”

Along with Turner Thorne, Elenga has served as a role model for both Mbulito and Hanson.

“She’s like my big sister here,” Mbulito said. “We were talking before I came [to ASU] so we have a good connection. Every time I’m having a tough moment, I know I can talk to her and she’ll give me advice.

“I love her so much. She’s like my family here. She’s special. I’m going to cry when she leaves to be honest.”

Hanson added her thoughts as well.

“Living so far from home brings us close together,” Hanson said. “We encourage each other and lift each other up.”

Aside from playing on the court and having the opportunity to bond as teammates, both Hanson and Mbulito are roommates, creating a tight connection as first-year players at a big university.

“We have a good relationship,” Mbulito said. “We do many things together like go shopping and grab coffee. We’re like sisters.”

While still far, Hanson’s home is the shortest distance of the three. Kelowna is 1,515 miles away from Phoenix, which is about a three-hour plane ride. Elenga’s family lives 5,449 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and Mbulito’s hometown even further at 5,518 miles away.

It was those same distances that were traveled by ASU’s coaches just to shake hands with the then prospective Devils, and the effort to do so, has paid off.

“We’re gonna go wherever the players are,” Turner Thorne said. “It’s awesome when they’re in our backyard, but when they’re not, we’re just going to try and look as hard as we can and find them.”