UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Australia women's basketball national team coach Sandy Brondello believes that Ezi Magbegor is the future of the Opals' program.
SMU senior forward Alicia Froling saw the future starting to take shape three years ago when she and Magbegor were teammates on Australia's U-19 national team that won the bronze medal at the FIBA U-19 world championships in Russia.
"I was one of the oldest players and Ezi was three years younger so she didn't get as much court time," Froling said Saturday. "She was still fresh. But she is awesome and just a great kid. I love her to death, just the sweetest soul."
And Froling is well aware of the University of Connecticut's interest in Magbegor, a 6-foot-4 forward and star of Australia's youth national teams. Magbegor has made official recruiting visits to UConn and UCLA and also has the option of continuing to play for the Canberra Capitals of Australia's Women's National Basketball League. Magbegor recently finished her first season with the Capitals where she was a teammate of Froling's twin sister, Keely, who played two years at SMU before returning home to start a professional career.
Magbegor, who will turn 19 on Aug. 13, was the WNBL's Rookie of the Year after averaging 6.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in 13 minutes per game.
"Ezi's long and very poised," Alicia Froling said. "She does things quietly. She doesn't talk trash. She goes about her business and she puts points on the board just like that. She's an excellent shot blocker. I know that she was here last week and she has great potential. Sandy Brondello says she's the future of our national team. That's the kind of player she is. Like I said, she has so much potential."
Magbegor was the top scorer (16.1 points on 53 percent shooting from the floor) and second-leading rebounder (8.1) while averaging team-highs of 2.0 steals and 1.6 blocked shots as Australia finished sixth in the FIBA U-19 World Cup last summer. In 2016, she was the Most Valuable Player as she led Australia to the gold medal at the FIBA U-17 world championships by averaging 12.5 points on 55 percent shooting from the floor, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.9 blocked shots.
After wrapping up her WNBL season, she took part in an Australian senior national team cap being held in Italy at the Australian Institute of Sport European Training Center. She then took her visits to UCLA and UConn. UCLA's Chantel Horvat was also a teammate of Magbegor and Froling on the 2015 U-19 team. Magbegor's brother, Ovie, is playing in the United States and is a freshman forward at Division II University of West Georgia.
Froling, who will return to SMU for her final year of eligibility next season after missing this season due to knee surgery, has twice been named to the American Athletic Conference second team. She is a member of the Mustangs' 1,000-point club and should reach 1,000 rebounds by the midway point of 2018-19.
While the college experience was best for her, does Froling think playing for Geno Auriemma at UConn or Cori Close at UCLA be a better option than staying in the WNBL? She, like everyone else, is waiting for a decision.
"I think for Ezi, that if she's in this environment and in a place with someone like Geno ... I don't know what their team will be like next year so she might not play much as a freshmen," Froling said. "But the experience and to be in this environment and to be around people like that will be invaluable to her. She wants to play at the highest level which is the WNBA, so to be around Geno or to be around a program like UCLA's ... Our WNBL is a good league but the bad part is that it's a short season so she would have to find something else to do in their offseason.
"What would help her in a college situation is that she would be here all year. Maybe she would go home for a summer session but other than that, I think that's what she needs to develop. She's a good player right now. But if she taps into the potential she has, she could be amazing. She could be our next Lauren Jackson, and everybody knows what she did in the WNBA."
UConn has signed two McDonald's All-Americans from the Class of 2018: Christyn Williams (5-11 guard, Little Rock, Arkansas) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (6-4 forward/center, Winder, Georgia).
TULANE ADVANCES TO FACE UCONN
Senior Kolby Morgan had 27 points (10-for-12 shooting from the floor), eight rebounds, and eight assists Saturday as No. 9 Tulane topped eighth-seeded Memphis 76-64 in an AAC tournament first-round game at Mohegan Sun Arena. The reward for the Green Wave (14-16), a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded and unbeaten UConn Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
"One thing that is good is that we have played them before," veteran Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said. "Not that it makes it any easier, but it does help you prepare mentally and emotionally going into the game. You know what you can and can't do and learn from past experiences playing them.
"When we got into the league with UConn, I really thought it was a great way to play a great program like that and have our players understand what it takes to play at that level. Each time we play them, we take something out of the game. We must challenge ourselves and set some goals to do something better than last time and the time before that. We will be ready to go, and I think the team is excited to play again."
The Huskies routed Tulane twice during the regular season. Katie Lou Samuelson led six Huskies in double figures with 19 points in a 98-45 win at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 27. Then on Feb. 21 at Devlin Fieldhouse in New Orleans, Azura Stevens (23) and Napheesa Collier (22) combined for 45 points in a 91-47 victory. A key to the wins is that UConn has held Morgan to 17 points on 5-for-22 shooting, three rebounds, and three assists in 61 minutes.
"The thing UConn does to you is that they go on runs and take the wind out of your sails," Stockton said. "For us, we just need to make sure that when they do go on runs we are ready to hang in there and play as hard as we did (Saturday)."
A Morgan 3-pointer capped a 17-6 run that gave Tulane a 35-22 halftime lead. The Green Wave built their lead to 24 before Memphis (10-20) put up the final 12 points to account for the final score.
The UConn-Tulane winner will face either fourth-seeded Cincinnati or No. 12 Tulsa in Monday's semifinals.
WOODEN WATCH; GENO EYES AAC VOTE
UConn's 2017 All-Americans -- Collier, Samuelson, and Gabby Williams -- are among 15 players on the national ballot for the Wooden Award as Player of the Year.
Also on the ballot are Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians, Baylor's Kalani Brown, Duke's Lexie Brown, UCLA's Jordin Canada, Missouri's Sophie Cunningham, Louisville's Asia Durr, Iowa's Megan Gustafson, Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell, Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale, and South Carolina's A'ja Wilson.
Samuelson was named the AAC Player of the Year Saturday, a day after the league announced its first team that also included Williams, Collier, and senior Kia Nurse. Samuelson was the only unanimous first-team pick. Last October, seven months after sharing the AAC Player of the Year honor with Collier, she was left off at least one coach's ballot for the preseason first team.
Auriemma was asked about Samuelson's chances to be on all ballots next fall, and answered by talking about the voting results released Friday.
"The same chances that Gabby was unanimous first team," he said. "There was actually a coach in our league that didn't think Gabby was one of the top 10 players in our league. I'll bet you if she played at any other school she would have been. Some coaches do dumb stuff. They don't make a kid first team because they don't like where she goes to school and how many kids they have on the first team. And they wonder why kids are the way they are today."
The four Huskies were joined on the AAC first team by South Florida's Kitija Laksa and Maria Jespersen, and Temple's Tanaya Atkinson.
Nurse has been selected as a finalist for the 2018 Dawn Staley Award, which recognizes the most outstanding collegiate guard in the country. Moriah Jefferson (2016) is the only UConn player to win the award. The other Staley finalists are Durr, Mitchell, and Vivians.
Tenth-seeded SMU's season ended Saturday with an 85-74 loss to No. 7 East Carolina in an AAC first-round game. The positive Froling took is that she plans to be ready to take the floor for the Mustangs to start next season as she works her way back from microfracture surgery on her knee.
The 6-foot-3 forward watched enough to last her a lifetime.
"It kills me. It kills me," Froling said. "When I hurt it ... I'm not an emotional person, but I was so upset for two weeks. If anyone asked me I would burst into tears. It's hard for me. It was frustrating, especially the way our season went. I knew it would be different if I was out there. I almost had to remove myself from it because I'm so invested in it. But I knew I couldn't impact the game on the floor so I was going to try to do it off the court."
Froling averaged a double-double in both her sophomore and junior years to earn all-AAC honors. But during a workout last fall, her season ended before it began.
"I was doing a layup drill, non-contact, and I got a bad pass and I reached for the ball and my leg went funny," Froling said. "I thought I had just jammed it. I tried to run, I tried to play on it, but I realized quickly I did something bad to it. My sister Keely did a similar thing. I got it checked out and the results were what we feared.
"It's much worse than an ACL and I don't know if people realize that. I was on crutches for over two months, which was painful. I'm almost five months out of surgery and I'm still not running. I'm working on getting my legs strong. I'll be back in time for next season. We're being smart and taking our time. I'll be back."
Froling said she has not been given a timetable for her return, but she'll fill a key role both on and off the court. The Mustangs lose six seniors from their 10-20 club so having a fifth-year senior to guide a young roster should be an advantage.
She will also receive her degree in psychology in May and then add a degree in sociology next year.
"Sitting back and watching this year I know I have it in me to be a good leader," Froling said. "I really think we're going to have a really good season next year. The kids coming here are hard workers and competitive. When you have kids who want to get better, it will be easy to lead them. I'm going to play as hard as I can."
(at Mohegan Sun Arena)
SATURDAY'S FIRST-ROUND GAMES (seeding in parentheses)
Game 1: Temple (11) 72, Wichita State (6) 59
Game 2: East Carolina (7) 85, SMU (10) 74
Game 3: Tulane (9) 76, Memphis (8) 64
Game 4: Tulsa (12) 98, Houston (5) 72
Game 5: Temple (11) vs. Central Florida (3), noon
Game 6: East Carolina (7) vs. South Florida (2), 2:30 p.m.
Game 7: Tulane (9) vs. UConn (1), 6:30 p.m.
Game 8: Tulsa (12) vs. Cincinnati (4), 9 p.m.
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 4:30 p.m.
Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 5 p.m.
Note: Game 11 winner receives AAC's automatic bid to NCAA tournament