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Arizona women’s basketball’s international players ready to roll after hectic offseason

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 31 Women’s UCLA at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The pandemic has changed life dramatically for everyone, but international student-athletes have faced special challenges. Arizona women’s basketball—sporting a roster with seven international players—has seen it all.

Now back in Tucson and hoping to help the Wildcats reach their first ever Final Four, sophomores Tara Manumaleuga and Mara Mote are looking towards the future—even if it’s a little bit different than the one they envisioned when they first arrived at Arizona.

When sports and in-person classes were halted last spring, it was a hectic and unnerving time. Those who were thousands of miles and many international borders from home had it especially hard. Manumaleuga’s challenges in getting to her home in Australia were compounded by issues with her paperwork.

“I’m just worried with getting home because during that time, a lot of international borders were starting to close,” Manumaleuga said. “And it was harder for international students to get home. And I had a couple issues with my passport because it expired, so I had to get an emergency passport. But I mean, I ended up making it home, which is the main point.”

Mote wasn’t even sure she was going back to Latvia initially. Even after the cancellation of the tournament, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion for her.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not going home yet. You know, it’s not that bad’,” Mote said. “And then I talked to my parents and I talked to people from different countries, and they’re like, ‘Okay, you know the countries are kind of shutting down.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ Like, Monday, we were just practicing. On Sunday, I was already gone... It all happened so quickly.”

Although things have gotten worse in Latvia lately, while the two guards were home, they were fortunate to be in countries that had relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases. The restrictions in Latvia were enforced by the police for several months, Mote said, but she was eventually able to work with her national team. In Queensland, where Manumaleuga is from, they were able to go out without masks and visit public places.

The relative low toll the virus had in their countries when they were home meant that both were able to work on their games. Manumaleuga spent her time working with her brother.

“Because he knows my game, (he) was just helping me out with basically all the areas in my game,” she said. “Mainly just shooting, dribbling, my handles.”

The work is paying off for Manumaleuga. Along with freshman Lauren Ware, she earned her A on Saturday.

The “earning your A” program is one head coach Adia Barnes borrowed from Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea. Players earn their gear through work in practice. Manumaleuga and Ware were the first underclassmen to do so this year.

For the first time in her career, Mote spent time at the point during her freshman season at Arizona. Back home, she was able to work on that more with her national team.

Coming back to the U.S. might have worried some people. With relative safety in their own countries, was it worth it to come to a place like Arizona that struggled with the virus so severely over the summer?

That was an especially big question for Mote, who is a member of a high-risk group by virtue of her asthma. As much as the health risks, though, was the concern about how easy it was going to be to return to school.

“The thing that I was worried the most (about) was, can I even get into the country?” she said. “Everything was shut down. And at the beginning, everyone was like, okay, we’re coming back in July. Okay, a week later. Okay, end of July. Okay, let’s come back in the beginning of August. And so we kept on going back and back. And then I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do.’ And because the States were having a worse time than back home, my parents were really worried about me.”

Getting back into the country was a very real concern. While Arizona has all of its international players, including two freshmen, on campus, some schools have faced issues.

UCLA had only eight players on campus when practice started in September. Australian freshmen Izzy Anstey and Gemma Potter were unable to get to Westwood.

Now that Mote and Manumaleuga are back, the focus is on school and basketball. With fewer distractions due to COVID-19 restrictions, they’ve even found some advantages.

“I think just because everyone’s going through the same thing, it kind of helps,” Mote said. “Everyone had to quarantine, and so that kind of brings us all together that we’re not alone in this. So I mean, of course, we don’t have the team bonding stuff. I mean, last year we went to a retreat and had all of that. So we’re kind of missing all of that. But I think just because we’re all in this together, it kind of brings us closer. We’re all taking care of each other.”

In practice, it’s all about being competitive, though. Both players said that practices are different this season because of improved depth and talent.

Other changes have been necessitated by the virus. While some teams aren’t wearing masks when practicing on the court, that hasn’t been the case for Arizona.

“I mean, it’s not really easy to wear them,” Mote said. “I think once we can take them off it’s going to feel like we’re more in shape, because you can actually breathe more.”

All of it will come together in less than a month when the season is scheduled to finally get underway. They’re still waiting to hear which teams they play on which dates, but they know they will face every Pac-12 team twice this season. With a league as deep as the Pac-12, that’s a formidable task, but they want to show that last year was no fluke.

Arizona ended last season ranked No. 12. Early polls have the Wildcats ranked in the top 10 this season and most early projections have them finishing second behind Stanford in the league. While both Manumaleuga and Mote want to improve on their personal performances, as a group the team wants to show that they can handle being “the hunted.”

“For the team, we have our own goals,” Mote said. “I’m not gonna say right now, but we have goals and it would be good if we can get where we’re trying to get.”