Few are the British starlets who have been able to scale the absolute heights of college basketball in the United States.

Just four players from the United Kingdom have featured in a Final Four with none yet helping to cut down the nets as a NCAA champion.

That could – perhaps should – have been a distinction allocated to Evelyn Adebayo last year.

The Londoner, poised to earn her second Great Britain cap against Belarus on Thursday, was front and centre as the University of Connecticut made a familiar charge to a Conference championship and then geared up for their habitual tilt at reigning over Magic Madness.

Then: Covid. The post-season wiped out.

And Adebayo’s collegiate career, which concluded with a single campaign with the illustrious Huskies as a graduate transfer, arrived at the least satisfying of ends.

“It was kind of hard to sink into because we had just won the conference tournament,” the 1.88m forward reveals.

“Everyone’s looking forward to March Madness. And it was my final year as a senior. I didn’t get another go-around. I’d waited five years to get to this point to potentially be in March Madness. There was that opportunity. And the season was just cut short.

“I was definitely disappointed for sure. But I mean, there’s nothing we could do about it.”

Still, an accolade to merely be brought into the fold in Storrs where the best of the best have passed through over the past two decades as Geno Auriemma has presided over one of the great sporting dynasties of America.

Quite a journey for Adebayo, who was ushered into the sport by her PE teacher, first into Newham Youngbloods, then onto Haringey Angels and Barking Abbey Academy, before a three-stop spell in the States which also included classes at Gardener-Webb and Murray State.

“I had a year of eligibility left,” she recalls. “I thought: ‘I want to go somewhere where I can really test myself.’”

Auriemma, a little to her surprise, sent out a summons for a prolific rebounder. “I went for a visit around campus. You could see the banners and the photos. It was impressive.”

For a while, the reality matched the huge hype. “Sue Bird came to practice. We had a game against the USA which was incredible…the players that you meet.” A little intimidating, on occasion. “But I’ve always told myself to believe in myself and be ready to give everything.”

That self-assurance, she acknowledges, was ferociously tested. Auriemma, never one to pull punches, openly declared it could be a wasted year for the Brit before Christmas 2019 had even arrived.

Slipping out of his rotation, it was trying, Adebayo concedes. Nevertheless, valuable lessons were soaked up amid the gloom. A “best year” in many respects, even with the traumas of adapting to this unique basketball culture.

“It was more of a patience thing,” she says. “Just learning to be patient and to just keep grinding, keep working, no matter what.

“Even if things aren’t going your way, you can’t stop. You keep going.

“That also connects with how it is in the real world. A lot of things we do in basketball, during sports in general, translates to the real world.

“So it’s like, no matter what, you just gotta keep going and have that mentality of like, ‘no, you can’t stop, you gotta be patient, and you just got to keep working for what you want.’”

Undertaking a Masters in Sports Management, she informally picked up a Ph.D.’s worth of coaching education from the United States’ national team supremo.

To be of use in her future, the 24-year-old hints. Further seeds were sown when UConn assistant coach, Shea Ralph, persuaded his recruit to participate in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association programme: ‘So You Want To Be A Coach’, with one eye over the horizon.

More informally, every practice with Auriemma and his staff was a clinic in itself, she acknowledges.

“All the different styles in coaching and how together like they make this one great dynasty. But they’re also different in their coaching, techniques and tactics.

“So if coaching is something I want to get into after basketball, after playing, I also know how to approach different players. And obviously a thing that may work with one player may not work with everyone.

“Being able to be flexible and dynamic and always changing … I think that’s a really big thing that that is needed for player development, for players in general.”

Courtesy of the global lockdown last summer, Adebayo was briefly stranded Stateside as she awaited offers to begin her professional career.

Eventually, she signed in Belgium for what turned out to be solely a pre-season with Phantoms before switching to Alcobendas, who play in the second division of Spain’s potent Liga Femenina.

“It’s definitely good experience for sure,” she says of her time so far, having averaged 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

“You’re playing against really good players, you learn a whole new different culture, language, etc. You’re just experiencing new things. And seeing new things, making new teammates and memories.”

Beyond basketball, she has vowed to give back. Maybe centred upon her old stomping grounds in east London, perhaps on a different stage.

A club. A school academy. A common theme. “A place for kids where they can learn basketball and life skills at the same time,” she confirms.

A product of the Great Britain pyramid, capped upwards from Under-16 level and now into senior level, she spies further work to be done. To present others with the opportunities she was afforded, to open doors and create dreams as grand as the ones she realised on campus.

“Because there really is so much great talent in the UK,” Adebayo underlines.

“I think it is a matter of there being more opportunities … more tournaments where players can get more exposure and seen.

“There can be more leagues created for them or more places for kids to show what they can do, and opportunities for them to like keep climbing the ladder and keep achieving success and get to higher levels.”

To Storrs, or even beyond.

This originally appeared in the MVP Mail – MVP’s regular newsletter. Sign up to receive it today.

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