Freshman guard adjusts from overseas

By Krystal Megan

DeKALB — Gabby Nikitinaite, women’s basketball freshman guard, knew she wanted to play collegiate basketball in the United States when she was 13 years old.

Nikitinaite was playing for a London-based team when her former head coach, Len Busch, saw her play for the first time. Busch learned Nikitinaite had been traveling 30 miles to play for the other club and inevitably figured she would come play for his club, the Sevenoaks Suns, after learning the guard lived closer to the town of Sevenoaks.

“She started training with us, and we let her play out that season with her old club, and she joined our club the next year,” Busch said. “[We’re] one of the top development leagues in the U.K., [and] we develop a lot of young players and send them off to the states.”

Nikitinaite signed with NIU on April 21 during its spring signing period. The Huskies guard visited a number of other schools, including Drexel University and the University of San Francisco, but what separated NIU from the other schools she visited, according to Nikitinaite, were the Mid-American Conference, Head Coach Lisa Carlsen and the family-like atmosphere the team has.

“I thought the MAC would be the best conference for me to compete in [and] to be able to have a successful career,” Nikitinaite said. “I loved what Coach Carlsen did with the program — she turned it around. I followed their season last season. It was a shame they couldn’t get the [win] in the MAC finals, but I enjoyed watching them.”

Nikitinaite hails from Orpington, Kent in the United Kingdom, where she spent most of her basketball career playing for Sevenoaks. The Suns are one of the top clubs in the Women’s British Basketball League, the top women’s basketball league in the U.K.

Nikitinaite helped the Suns win their first championship since the league’s inception three years ago and also took home the Molten Young Player of the Year award, which is given to the best player under 20 years old in the league.

“She deserved the Molten Young Player of the Year — hands down,” said Cat Carr, a former teammate of Nikitinaite at Sevenoaks. “I personally don’t think anyone else in her age group should have got it. She was a main component to why our team was so successful last year. She is much better than her age.”

Nikitinaite turned 19 years old on Nov. 12, and though there’s a 10-year age difference between her and Carr, they’re still close — a reason Carr refers to the guard as her “little sister.”

Carr was protective and wouldn’t let anyone mess with her younger teammate on the basketball court, and when Nikitinaite had questions on how to excel at the next level, Carr, who played collegiate basketball at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was there to help.

“We talked about college a lot,” Carr said. “I think sharing my experiences with her from college helped her get a feel about what it was all about and what she wanted to look for in a school.”

Nikitinaite said she didn’t apply to colleges in England because of the lack of scholarships there and because the facilities and the exposure she’d receive in the U.S. would be bigger.

Busch said most young players have a goal to get to the states to play collegiate basketball.

“There’s no equivalent to a college scholarship,” Busch said. “So, you can go play college basketball in the U.K., but they don’t give full scholarships, and the league is not as competitive. So, the best college experience is in America for basketball players.”

Nikitinaite’s signing doubled the number of international players on NIU’s roster, which includes junior guard Courtney Woods. Woods came to NIU in 2015 from Brisbane, Australia and was excited to hear the team was bringing in another international player this year. The third-year starter said she knows the process of attending college in the U.S. is different when coming from another country and not having any relatives around.

“I definitely wanted to make it a little bit easier for her,” Woods said. “I know my freshman year I definitely struggled with the bigger adjustments, [and] I try to help her out wherever I can, and she seems to appreciate it.”

Woods has been looking out for the young guard since her recruitment visit and has tried to help her with a lot of the little things international players have to deal with, including the taxes they receive, filling out forms and getting an American driver’s license. Woods also said her and Nikitinaite’s friendship is different from Woods’ other friendships because of what they have in common, and she’s never experienced “this type of motherhood” until she met her younger teammate.

“We can talk [about] her country colonizing my country,” Woods said with a smile on her face. “We won’t get to go home for the [winter and spring] breaks, so we’ll be here. We tried to figure out how to get driver’s licenses, [and] we definitely have similar playing styles, so we have lots of stuff in common.”

One of Nikitinaite’s most notable attributes on the basketball court is her passing ability. The guard knows where to find her teammates, and it’s one of the things Carlsen said draws the most attention to the freshman, along with her ability to score the basketball.

“I think she’s somebody that has a great understanding of the game and will fit really well in our system,” Carlsen said. “And as she continues to get more and more comfortable, I think she has a chance to be a pretty special player.”

NIU was the fifth-highest scoring team in the nation last season, and the team has been known to get up and down the court quickly under Carlsen. The style of play in the U.S. is faster than in England, which is something Nikitinaite said she’s still adjusting to.

“Compared to how I played back home in England, I’d say I transferred, and I’m still transferring from playing at a slow pace to a fast-pace game because there’s so much running to do,” Nikitinaite said. “But, I like it [and] clearly that is an advantage against other teams since [NIU’s] been fifth-highest scoring in the country.”

The freshman came off the bench to score 11 points in 19 minutes, shooting 43 percent on 3-pointers, Nov. 15 against the University of Iowa from the Big-10 Conference.

Busch believes his former player has the ability to make an impact at NIU soon and said Nikitinaite’s always been an incredibly focused and talented player, and the Suns already miss her.

“If it’s not right away as a freshman,” Busch said. “She will [in due time] be able to demonstrate on the court just why [NIU] is so lucky to have her.”