UConn women's basketball has five international players. Behind the process of global recruiting

STORRS — The UConn women’s basketball program added Portuguese point guard Inês Bettencourt to its 2022 freshman class last month without coaches having seen her play in person. 

Assistant coach Morgan Valley had a recruiting friend in Europe recommend Bettencourt and a UConn videographer put together a tape of her best highlights. The Huskies were in desperate need for a backup point guard with Paige Bueckers sidelined for the upcoming season, and there wasn’t much time to recruit because school was starting in about a month.

Valley said Bettencourt’s recruiting process was rare, yet not totally uncommon when it comes to bringing in international players. 

"Usually you’re getting the opportunity to see them play prior but it’s not uncommon," Valley said last week inside the lobby of Werth Family Basketball Champions Center. "I’ve recruited a lot of Europeans without ever seeing them play live. But here, we usually don’t see that."

Bettencourt became the fifth international player on UConn’s roster of 12. It’s the most amount of international talent the Huskies’ have ever had on roster for a single season. Bettencourt is the program’s first player from Portugal and its 14th all-time player to join the program from outside the United States.

Going overseas to find talent isn’t new for UConn. From 1990 on coach Geno Auriemma and his staff have found success recruiting international players from Poland, Russia, Canada, Nigeria and Croatia among other countries.

But the process of recruiting those players is different.

'Developmental opportunity'

Associate head coach Chris Dailey said the staff is most often first introduced to an international player during a tournament overseas in which the U.S. in playing. They can also be introduced when international players come to the U.S. to play in invitational tournaments.

UConn first saw Nika Mühl (Croatia) and Aaliyah Edwards (Canada) play live in 2019, when they were part of the Next Generation minicamp in Tampa during the Final Four weekend.

If the coaches get word of a player they might be interested in, they’ll do their best to try to fly out to see the player live. If they can’t make it work, they rely on film and the perspectives of other coaches.

Once coaches find an international player they’re interested in, they have to confirm if that player has interest in entering the professional realm instead of attending college. Once a player signs a professional contract, even for an international team, they’re no longer eligible to compete in the NCAA.

"You can go sometimes through the whole process (of recruiting) and have them go pro anyway," Dailey said. "So, we have to work really hard at trying to find international players that really want to come and play and go to college and play in the U.S. before they make a decision to play pro."

Dailey said she’s seen an increase in international players wanting to play collegiately in the States. If it’s not purely to get an education, it’s to get more experience with players who are relatively their same age and talent level instead of joining a professional team where they’re often the youngest and least experienced.

"I think some of them see it as a developmental opportunity because they play in college and what we do here is different than how they play in the pros," Dailey said. "Like they might be a young player, on a really good pro team, but they don’t play as much. … I think they see value in coming here and developing, learning how the U.S. plays and we find value in how the international players play."

In the case of Bettencourt, most of her recent film came from playing in July’s FIBA U18 Women’s European Championship, Division B in Bulgaria. The point guard led Portugal with 14.4 points per game and led the country to the championship game.

Bettencourt said it was less than 20 days after UConn first reached out to her in early August that she committed to the program. Less than a week after committing she flew out to Connecticut.

"I think just coming in in the fall and not being able to come here this summer is a bit of a disadvantage but she’s working hard," Valley said. "She does everything the moment you ask her to do it. She’s on top of everything she does. She has a really good mind for the game and knows how to play the game."

International presence

Uprooting one’s life in their home country, traveling miles away to a new country where a new language is spoken, and landing on a campus without knowing anyone can be, at the very least, overwhelming. 

Lots of paperwork is involved with filing the right documentation and once you arrive the culture shock can take you by surprise after the smallest of things. Adjusting to taking classes in a new language and learning a new style of basketball can be tough to digest early on  —  especially at a program that places the highest of expectations on its players.

"I just think they deserve a lot of credit and I always find them very courageous because I don’t think a lot of Americans — maybe a couple soccer players will go over, male soccer players, some female soccer players will skip college and go overseas  — but I just think it takes a lot of courage and really just bravery to come over here and try to experience something new just to have this goal," Valley said. "You can do it anywhere and to choose here (UConn) is that much harder."

Bettencourt arrived in Storrs on August 29. That was the first time in her life that she touched down on U.S. soil. Four days into her experience, she told media that she already missed Portuguese food and wasn’t a fan of the processed food here in America.

She was put in an apartment with Bueckers, Amari DeBerry and Dorka Juhász. 

Juhasz, from Hungary, said having another international player on the team helps each of them feel more connected to each other knowing they’re going through similar experiences.

"I think it’s always good to have somebody that can help them through the first year because it can be really hard," Juhász said. "Like, I remember my freshman year, you know, just new to this, like a second language of school was pretty hard and all of that so we’re gonna help her through it."

Azzi Fudd said she enjoys learning about her teammates’ different cultures and wants to visit their home countries with them. Mühl has been known to teach her teammates Croatian swear words. Juhász said it’s fun to watch the team try each player’s traditional food. And Bueckers said since the team is almost split half and half, sometimes Dailey will split the team for scrimmages into U.S. players vs “the world” players.

All-time international Huskies:

Canada: Aaliyah Edwards (2020 - present), Kia Nurse (2014-2018) , Christine Rigby (1999-01) and Kelly Schumacher (now Schumacher-Raimon) (1997-01)

Croatia: Nika Mühl (2020 - present) and Thiana Abrlic (1997-99)

Hungary: Dorka Juhász (2021-present)

France: Lou Lopez Sénéchal (2022-23)

Israel: Orly Grossman (1990-91)

Nigeria: Rashidat Sadiq (2004-05)

Russia: Svetlana Abrosimova (1997-01)

Poland: Anna Makurat (2019-21)

United Kingdom: Evelyn Adebayo (2019-20)

Portugal: Inês Bettencourt (2022-present)

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com  @maggie_vanoni