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Worldly Wise

Feb. 5, 2015

The Georgia Tech women’s basketball team features three international players on this year’s roster – sophomore Katarina Vuckovic (Smederevo, Serbia), freshman Simina Avram (Brasov, Romania) and freshman Antonia Peresson (Pordenone, Italy). Watch them teach their teammates how to say words in their native language below. Also featured below is a feature story that was published prior to the 2014-15 season, highlighting all of the international players that have played for the Georgia Tech women’s basketball program.

This article was orginally published in Buzz Magazine. 

It’s a commonly held belief that if you have talent it doesn’t matter where you are, someone will find you.

Over the last 11 years, it’s been proven that if you have talent and an excellent GPA it doesn’t matter where you are, Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph will find you.

She will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of that talent.

“We definitely go to them, there’s no doubt about it,” said Joseph, who begins her 12th season at the helm of the Yellow Jackets with a career record of 213-134 (a .614 winning percentage), seven 20-win seasons and a matching seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including six straight of each from 2007 through 2012. “We pursue them. We go to Europe. We watch the European Championships. We work with several scouting services. It’s a work ethic, too. That’s a big thing because not a lot of coaches want to go over to Europe and make those trips.”

Coach Jo will. When she wants a player, there is no destination too far. For example, there was the excursion to Serbia two summers ago to convince forward Katarina Vuckovic to come to school in Atlanta.

“I went to Serbia and back in 72 hours,” Joseph recalled. “Forty eight hours were spent on a plane of some sort, travelling, connecting. Literally, in 72 hours, I went from Atlanta to Serbia, watched a game and came back.

“Those are tough trips. They’re a little bit different than flying to Florida or New York,” she added, with a laugh. “It’s a challenge, for sure.”

But it’s a challenge that usually pays off. It did with Vuckovic, who chose to come Georgia Tech, got her feet wet last season and is expected to be a big part of the 2014-15 season. This past summer Joseph again ventured to Europe and came home with two more prize recruits, 6-3 center Simina Avram from Romania and 5-9 point guard Antonia Peresson. Both cited Joseph’s visit as a factor in choosing Georgia Tech.

“I really liked Coach Jo,” said Avram. “I really liked her when she came and visited me. I think she was the deciding factor.”

“I really like Coach Jo. She made a really good first impression on me. So I chose Georgia Tech,” said Peresson. “Also the academics because it’s a really good university. In Italy, we think America is like `The Dream’ for every player. So when I had the opportunity to come here I took it and I’m here.”

Joseph has been making “The Dream” reality for 11 years. It began in the summer of 2003, when she boarded a plane to Uppsala, Sweden — some 4,632 miles and nine and a half hours away — to visit with a 6-0 guard named Chioma Nnamaka.

“It was always a dream of mine to play college basketball so being recruited by Georgia tech was very exciting,” Nnamaka recalled. “Coach Jo came to Sweden for a day or two just to be able to watch me play. It was a great visit, nerve-wracking but great!

“I wanted to play for a program where I could help make a difference as well as play for a coach that would make me a better player as well as a person,” she added. “After visiting with Coach Jo in Sweden and my visit to Atlanta, I knew Georgia Tech was the right place for me.”

Nnamaka was just as right for Joseph’s program.

Nnamaka, part of Joseph’s first recruiting class, helped the Jackets to the first back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths in school history (2007, ’08) and the first two of six straight appearances. She is still the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter (269 three-point field goals made) and ranks sixth in school scoring (1,593 points), among her accolades. Nnamaka earned ACC All-Freshman team honors in 2005 and was honorable mention All-ACC in 2008. Upon graduation, was drafted by the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars on the second round in 2008 (21st overall), later playing for the Atlanta Dream.

Joseph has brought 10 international players to the States in her tenure, including Australia native Brigitte Ardossi, who, like Nnamaka, rewrote the record books in her four years, was named All-ACC (second-team in 2010), then, after graduation was selected in the WNBA Draft (by the Dream, coincidentally, also at No. 21overall). She credits Georgia Tech’s reputation in drawing these talented international student-athletes.

“Georgia Tech is recognized and accepted internationally, not just nationally, as one of the top schools in the U.S. and therefore in the world. That’s, obviously, first and foremost,” she said. “It really helps us to be able to attract those types of players. Secondly, having international players that go on to play professionally after they leave Georgia Tech, like Chioma Nnamaka, like Danielle Hamilton-Carter, Brigitte Ardossi, we have a track record of them not only coming to Georgia Tech but being successful, graduating and going onto professional careers in basketball as well as moving back to their country and having success.”

It’s a win-win. The players get a unique opportunity academically and athletically at Georgia Tech while Joseph gets a more mature player for her program.

That’s especially true with the European players Joseph has brought over. The Yellow Jackets have three on their current roster, Vuckovic, a sophomore forward, Avram and Peresson, and Joseph is counting on that experience and maturity in helping them adapt and contribute as soon as this season.

“The thing about international players is they come with so much experience,” she said. “[Simina and Antonia] are not typical freshmen, because when they’re in ninth grade they move away from their families, and they live in another city and they play on teams where the women are 25 to 35 years old. These are experiences they’ve had since they were 14 years old, so it kind of separates them a little bit from typical freshmen. They just come with a different type of maturity level and they play at a higher level than most high school players.”

Joseph hopes to see a high level of play from her European stars, most of all Vuckovic.

The 6-3 forward played in 27 games as a freshman, averaging 3.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists, but showed flashes of brilliance, like on Feb. 14 against Virginia, when she scored her season-high 14 points, with a pair of three-pointers.

“I think I needed some time to adjust, first to the American style of play from the European, but I think I did good for a first year,” said Vuckovic, who, in addition to the obvious language barriers and cultural adjustments, also had to overcome a knee injury that cost her the first five games of the season. “When I first got here I didn’t know what to expect but I think it was harder than I thought it was going to be. The ACC is way more physical and the basketball is faster. All the teams are good.”

She enters 2014-15 at full strength and getting stronger, thanks to an off-season conditioning program. Mentally, she’s more confident, as she’s familiar with what’s ahead and is building off her performance in the U-20 European Championships, where she hit a tournament-best 57.9 percent from three-point range (11-of-19), 11 points higher than the nearest competitor, shot 82.6 percent from the line and averaged 8.7 points per game for the Serbs, who scored a tournament-best 66.0 points per game.

“Katarina is our most improved player coming into the pre-season,” said Joseph. “I think she’s going to be a key to our success this year.”

Vuckovic is taking the lead in mentoring of Avram and Peresson.

“I know what to expect in practice and what [Joseph] wants us to do in the game,” Vuckovic said. “I’m talking to them and getting them ready, telling them what to expect from Coach Jo in practice and the ACC and just trying to get them prepared for that.”

“She’s helping so much, me and Simi, because she lived here for a year so she knows how things are,” said Peresson. “It’s good to have a person like Kat that can help us with everything.”

Joseph is eager to see what Peresson, the first Italian-born player to come to Georgia Tech, can do.

“Antonia is a true point guard,” Joseph said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had someone that’s really a true point guard that can run a team and run a system. She thinks pass first, shot second and she’s also going to a give us an added shooter on the perimeter. I see tons of potential and her being able to help tremendously down the road this season.”

Peresson averaged 3.0 points, 0.5 rebounds and had three assists vs. one turnover in 10.8 minutes per game, helping Italy earn a bronze medal in the European Championships.

She and Vuckovic actually met at the Championships, twice as opponents, with Serbia winning both times — Vuckovic scored her tournament-high 16 points, in the first game, a 77-67 victory, while a controversial charge was the decider in the Serbia’s 68-63 win in the medal round.

“At the European Championships I asked her how [Georgia Tech] was,” said Peresson, who had seen Vuckovic at previous European Championships but hadn’t spoken with her prior to this summer. “She told me a lot of good things but that it would be so hard.”

Avram also played in the European Championships but in Division B, scoring 10 points in 10.0 minutes per game over four games, and grabbing 11 rebounds for. Her best game was a five-point, three-rebound effort in 11 minutes in a 89-57 loss to Israel.

The fall started much better for Avram, who pleasantly surprised Joseph in early practices.

“Simi’s really surprised me with her conditioning level,” she said. “She gives us some depth at the five position. She’s got the ability to score with her back to the basket. I’ve been really impressed with how she’s come in and been able to pick up the system and really play physical for an international player.”

It’s a big deal for both, as the first players from their respective countries to come to Georgia Tech.

“I can’t wait to start,” she said. “From my country there are just a few players that came here, so it’s kind a huge thing to be here.”

“In Italy, they want to have their talents there; they don’t want to share them,” said Peresson. “I decided to come here, because I think you have to try to improve with the best, and here I can work with the best players. So I’m glad to be here and I’m glad to be the first Italian to play for Georgia Tech.”

Being first and having success can help loosen restrictions. Nnamaka, although not the first Swedish-born player to come to Georgia Tech, helped bring in the likes of countrymen Hamilton-Carter and Frida Fogdemark.

“I believe so,” said Nnamaka. “I think when you see other players from your country succeed, it makes you want to follow in their footsteps.”

Avram and Peresson have taken their first steps, and, while it’s a challenge, they are proving up to it.

“It’s really different from what I’m used to but I like it a lot,” said Avram. “I think the basketball part was the hardest. Everything is faster, the players are stronger.”

“The basketball is so different because the players are much stronger and they play so much more physical,” said Peresson. “It’s a totally different game. The intensity is the most different thing between my previous practices before coming here and this practice, but I like so much how Coach Jo works and how she pushes us and how she makes us improve every day.”

The learning curve may not be as steep, as both have played in multiple European championships, with Peresson, even playing the 2012 FIBA U-17 World Championships, against the U.S. team that included Jackets star Kaela Davis.  

Joseph isn’t worried about the freshmen’s drive in working to get their bearings and play well.

“They just come with a maturity level that’s hard to explain,” she said. “The sacrifice they’re making to be away from their families, to come to the States, to become a better basketball player and to get a degree, they don’t have a lot of room for other things. They’re very focused on what they’re here for.”

It’s the same things that brought Nnamaka and every international player since to Georgia Tech in the MaChelle Joseph Era and is what keeps them coming.


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