Ionescu fulfills dream of playing college hoops in United States

Alex Ionescu is one of four European women’s basketball players in the Big Ten.

Betsy Helfand

Last spring, point guard Alex Ionescu was deciding between five Division I schools where she would  continue her basketball career.

 

There’s something that sets her apart from most other high school-aged recruits, though.

She’s from Bucharest, Romania, and is one of just four European women’s basketball players in the Big Ten. 

She started playing basketball at 11, but it wasn’t until March 6, 2011, that she made the decision — informally — to play at the collegiate level for the Gophers.

Ionescu recalled that day: It was two days before she had surgery to repair her left ACL, and head coach Pam Borton was in town to pay her a visit.

“I was in my class studying and my [future] coach was recruiting,” Ionescu said. “I was very [much] like the boys so I was into sports a lot, and I just went to a practice,”

Coaches visit recruits all the time, but it’s not every day they board a transatlantic flight to visit a European recruit’s home.

In that sense, Borton’s visit to Bucharest was special and  clearly made an impact.

Borton said that the team has a scout in Europe who saw Ionescu play and said good things.

“She wanted to be here,” Borton said. “Her work ethic, her skill level, her speed and envisioning how good we think she can be is really what excited us about Alex,”

Her pitch and dedication to Ionescu made a lasting impression. “I didn’t look at other schools after that, I just came to Minnesota,” Ionescu said.

On April 13, 2011, Borton announced that Ionescu had signed a National Letter of Intent.

She’s seen limited action this year — she has played just 16 minutes in seven regular season games this season for the Gophers. She is 1-of-5 in field goal attempts and 1-of-2 in free throw attempts.

But Ionescu has experienced success at the national level in Romania.

She participated on five International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Youth European Championship teams for her country: Starting in 2007, she played two years on the under-16 team, two years on the U-18 and one season on the U-20 in 2010.

In 2008, she helped lead her team to a win over Slovenia in the U-16 European Championship consolation game with 17 points, eight rebounds, five steals and four assists.

Despite her experience in Romania, Borton thought coming to the U.S. was a necessity for Ionescu.

“She wants to play for her national team in the Olympics someday,” Borton said, “and I think for her to be able to do that and help her country, she had to come over here to get stronger and better.”

Adjustments

College is a big transition for any kid, but going to school over 5,000 miles away from home and having to transition to a different game undoubtedly makes it harder.

It took Ionescu a while to learn the basketball vernacular, and the adjustments on the court from a European style of basketball have been difficult, too.

“My teammates help me so much. They have been a really great support and then the coaches have been correcting me in everything,” Ionescu said.

Borton said she’s been impressed with Ionescu’s progress.

“She’s surprised me in a sense of how quickly she’s adapted to our culture, to the game and how strong she’s gotten since she’s been here,” Borton said.

Teammate Katie Loberg  has clicked with Ionescu because they’re both “artsy [and are] both interested in the same kind of books and movies,” Loberg said.

Ionescu joined Loberg at home in Princeton, Minn., over winter break, where she fell in love with the Loberg’s 30-pound cat, Sophie.

“I thought maybe it’d make her transition a little easier to relate to somebody so I was kind of that person for her,” Loberg said.

Loberg, a journalism junior, said that the two have been able to offer each other advice.

“I talk to her about how to make sure that she is getting things done. She calls me ‘Mother.’”

Loberg said they sometimes have to snap Ionescu back to focus — she gets spacey at times.

She has had a bit of trouble adjusting because defense in Europe is more aggressive, Ionescu said.

Former Gophers star Lindsay Whalen, now in the WNBA playing for the Minnesota Lynx, backed that up.

During the WNBA offseason, Whalen plays in Prague, Czech Republic in the Euroleague.

“On defense you can be more physical in Europe than in the U.S.A. The referees don’t call that many fouls on drives in Europe like they do in the U.S.A.,” Whalen wrote in an email.

Whalen, who is currently playing in the Euroleague, added, “Over here you can hold people and grab them while they have the ball, so that makes it a lot more difficult to make plays as an offensive player with the ball.”

Ionescu also said that play is faster in America.

“You have to know the fundamentals very well because it’s so fast that you tend to make a lot of mistakes so if you’re not focused, you cannot play,” she said.

Her one regular season field goal came in a Dec. 10 game — a 79-53 win over Harvard in front of a very important spectator: her mother.

“At the first game she came, I scored my first two points in an official game,” Ionescu said, “so I was happy that she was able to see that.”

European recruits

There are only three other European players in the Big Ten: Ohio State’s Aleksandra Dobranic, a redshirt sophomore, hails from Serbia and Indiana’s Linda Rubene Kristiana Stauere are from Latvia.

Cristina Bigica, a former teammate of Ionescu’s in Romania, is currently a freshman on the Marquette University women’s basketball team.

Ionescu is not the first — or only — European player for University of Minnesota basketball. Oto Osenieks, a redshirt freshman on the men’s basketball team, hails from Latvia.

Borton also coached Kadidja Andersson, a Swede, during Anderson’s junior and senior seasons.

Borton called Europe an “untapped market,” and said that many European basketball players want to play collegiate basketball in America.

“The players know they’re going to be developed over here for them to go back and play in the pros,” Borton said.

She also added that they are currently recruiting a “handful of kids in Europe.”

Once the initial adjustment period is over, there is a clear reward, Borton said.

“You can find great players over there,” she said. “I think it takes awhile to adjust once they get here depending on their maturity level.”

Barring a position change for either, Ionescu may be caught in a logjam at point guard — the team’s starting point guard Rachel Banham is also a true freshman.

She said she aspires to play in the Euroleague professionally someday, and Borton said she believes she has the work ethic to get there.

“Alex has a great attitude,” Borton said. “She wants to be pushed, she wants to be challenged, she wants to be coached pretty tough and I think that’s just going to make her better.”