PROVO — With just over one-third of the current roster consisting of players from overseas, the BYU women’s basketball team certainly brings to the court some international flair.
More important than any type of flair is the game contributions, of which three of the six international players have become consistent contributors, with BYU coach Jeff Judkins hoping for even more in the coming years.
“We’re starting to build some really good connections in Finland, Belgium and some other countries over there in Europe... We hope to continue recruiting around the world, because we’ve benefitted from it so much” — BYU coach Jeff Judkins
“We’ve been fortunate to have them as part of our program. No doubt,” Judkins said.
Judkins didn’t set out to specifically attract so many overseas players during his time at BYU, but like any coach he’s proactive in bringing in the best talent available to his program. But it turns out with BYU’s association with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the program’s recruiting reach has proven extensive throughout the world and subsequently beneficial.
Take sophomore forward Babalu Ugwu, as just one example.
Ugwu hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil, but arrived at BYU via North Carolina, where she played as a foreign-exchange student beginning in 2016. It just so happens Ugwu’s so-called ‘host parents’, Robert and Carlene Foster, are both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and on top of that, both are BYU graduates.
“We’d always travel to Provo to visit family, so I became pretty familiar with BYU through that,” Ugwu, who is a devout Baptist, said. “So it just started from there and I then got offered a scholarship and everything worked out really well.”
Making things work out didn’t come necessarily easy for Ugwu, however. The 6-foot forward recalls not speaking a word of English upon arriving in North Carolina, and subsequently struggling to catch up with certain aspects of everyday American life.
“School was really hard for me, at first, because of the language,” Ugwu said. “But I worked hard at it and like I said, everything worked out well.”
What Ugwu did have that translated immediately to her new environs was her basketball skills, of which another Latter-day Saints member, Eric Hemming, took early notice of. Hemming is a prominent AAU basketball coach in North Carolina, who ended up coaching Ugwu, just as he did BYU’s other Brazilian hoopster, Maria Albiero.
Albiero entered BYU’s program a year before Ugwu, and helped pave the way for Ugwu in her adjustment.
“I’m so grateful to Maria. She’s helped me so much since I’ve been here,” Ugwu said.
Albiero has started every game this season, with Ugwu rising to be one of the most impactful players off the bench. The 5-8 guard was referred to BYU coaches by Hemming with Judkins grateful the connection was made.
“Maria has done very well here, and really well in the classroom,” Judkins said. “She’s a top student and has like a 3.8 or 3.9 (grade-point average.) I’m real proud of her for what she’s been able to accomplish since becoming part of our program, and it hasn’t been easy.”
Half of BYU’s international contingent owes quite a bit to former BYU great Kalani Purcell.
Purcell played for BYU from 2015 to 2017 and quickly became one of the most impactful front court players Judkins has coached while at BYU. Purcell came to BYU from New Zealand, with current New Zealander, Shalae Salmon lending credit Purcell’s way.
“Her success here definitely helped bring a lot attention my way and coaches have continued to recruit New Zealand since,” Salmon said of Purcell, who was a senior when Salmon first entered the program.
Indeed Judkins takes at least one recruiting trip per year to New Zealand and has since signed two others from the country in both Khaiden Taito and Kaylee Smiler. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a strong presence in New Zealand, which brings a natural connection to BYU of which Judkins hopes to continue to benefit from.
“We heard of Purcell from a stake president over there, and it’s just opened a lot of doors for us since,” Judkins said. “So now we’re going out there at least once year and hope to get out there even more.”
Finally there’s Signe Glantz, a 6-1 sophomore, who came to BYU from Sweden, an area of the world Judkins hopes to find even more talent.
“We’re starting to build some really good connections in Finland, Belgium and some other countries over there in Europe, and I’m just grateful for the support from the administration to recruit over there and in New Zealand,” Judkins said. “We hope to continue recruiting around the world, because we’ve benefited from it so much.”
Of course the ultimate goal is to bring in the best talent, regardless of where that talent comes from.
“I always look to get the best talent out of the state of Utah first, but you want to look everywhere. Any coach will tell you that,” Judkins said. “Fortunately we’ve built some great connections — a lot of them from church members and we’re hopeful to continue to build even more connections to build the best team here we possibly can.”