Sophomore Amanda Zahui takes charge for Minnesota women
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Amanda Zahui B. has spent the past 2 1/2 years quietly and gradually assimilating to life and basketball in the United States after coming to Minnesota from Sweden.
She shortened her name from Zahui Bazoukou to Zahui B. because it was easier to pronounce and fit better on the back of her maroon and gold jersey.
She worked hard on her English to better communicate with her teammates. She worked hard on her diet and workout regimen to lose weight and fit in with the up-tempo offense under new coach Marlene Stollings.
Becoming more and more comfortable every day in her new country, Zahui is now forcing the rest of the Big Ten to adjust to her.
The 6-foot-5 center is coming off a monster week, combining for 66 points and 56 rebounds in two victories that have all but locked up a spot for the Golden Gophers in the NCAA tournament.
She had 39 points and 29 rebounds in a win over Iowa and followed it up with 27 points and 27 boards while playing all 50 minutes of a double-overtime victory over Michigan on Sunday.
”I have high goals for myself. I want to become the best,” Zahui said on Monday. ”I want to do whatever it takes to help my team win. I’m surprised that it’s going this well, that I’m actually doing what I’m dreaming about.”
Zahui – which rhymes with wowee – has put the Golden Gophers (22-6, 11-5 Big Ten) program back on the national scene after some down years, and earned some well-deserved recognition.
After her game against Iowa in which she set the conference record for rebounds, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and former Gophers stars Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville all reached out to her on Twitter and her cell phone hasn’t really stopped ringing.
”I’m not used to it yet. I like it. I don’t know how much I like it,” Zahui said. ”I kind of like to be in the corner and not be in the front stage, except on the court.”
Zahui is subdued in interview situations but is as fiery as they come on the court. Every blocked shot, every layup in traffic, every key defensive rebound is followed by a demonstrative roar as her long, wavy dark hair shakes off the back of her head.
Her emergence has helped the Gophers overcome the loss of preseason Big Ten player of the year candidate Rachel Banham to a knee injury.
One more victory will tie the school record for victories in a season and the Gophers have won five straight games as tournament time approaches.
”You can’t explain it,” forward Shae Kelley said. ”I don’t even think I knew at the time she had that many. She’s just out there and I’m getting ready to get (the rebound) and she’s there.”
Zahui was a little-known recruit of former Gophers coach Pam Borton, a member of the Swedish national team whose father is from the Ivory Coast and mother was born in Sweden to parents of French and Spanish descent. Her parents met in Stockholm, and she was ”always the giant” growing up who initially resisted efforts to get her into basketball.
”I said I wanted to do everything else. And then I tried one practice when I was 10, I was like, `OK. I’m (hooked). Maybe I should’ve listened earlier.”’
She redshirted her first year in Minnesota to ease her way into a completely new environment.
”It was interesting,” she said. ”I hate sitting on the bench. I hate not being able to help my team on the court. I think it helped a lot with just studying the game and sitting on the sideline and doing this or looking this, but not being out there is rough, especially for someone like me. I love to play. I love to be out there. But it was very important for me. I believe that I grew a lot.”
She chose Minnesota over Washington and Louisville. Thanks in large part to that decision, the Gophers are on the brink of their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.
”It’s historic what we’re being able to witness,” Stollings said. ”The scary thing, and the good thing, is I feel like we’re just scratching the surface of how great she can really become. She’s got a big upside and she’s only beginning.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.