All Marlene Stollings could do was shake her head in wonder. Four days after a 39-point, 29-rebound performance against Iowa on Feb. 17, Gophers sophomore Amanda Zahui B. followed up with 27 points and 27 rebounds in a victory over Michigan, an encore that left her coach searching for superlatives.
“We’ll look back at this and realize how historic it is as time goes by,” Stollings said that day. “I really think Amanda has the opportunity to become a global phenom by the time she’s a senior.”
Monday, Zahui closed the book on her history at the U, announcing she will leave school and enter the WNBA draft. Though the 6-5 center didn’t give a reason for her decision to leave the Gophers after only two seasons, experts have said she could be the No. 1 pick in the April 16 draft. A tour de force season earned Zahui national recognition. She led the Gophers back to the NCAA tournament, and her long list of accolades ensured her place among the program’s all-time greats.
Her departure blows a substantial hole in a roster that has shed six players in the past three months. The only player in Gophers history to be named an Associated Press first-team All-America, Zahui led the team with 18.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.1 blocked shots per game and was the media’s choice as Big Ten player of the year. She is a finalist for the Naismith Trophy and the Wade Trophy as national player of the year and is on the ballot for the Wooden Award.
Very few women have left college early to enter the WNBA because of the league’s strict draft-eligibility standards. Players who are 22 years old during the year of the draft are eligible, and Zahui will turn 22 on Sept. 8. Monday was the deadline for her to declare her intention to enter the draft.
“I am most grateful for the University of Minnesota and the Golden Gopher basketball program and athletic department for believing in me and welcoming me as I sought to make something great of my life and grooming my talents further,” Zahui said in a statement. “In two years, the University of Minnesota became home. The coaches, university staff, teammates and community have helped me in many ways; I truly want to thank them all. I will forever be a Gopher and will support their continued success.”
Stollings, who was in Tampa, Fla., on Monday for the Women’s Final Four, was not available for comment but also issued a statement.
“We are extremely proud of Amanda and the opportunities that await her professional career,” Stollings said. “In just a short amount of time, her maturity and skills advanced greatly, culminating in this incredible opportunity.”
A native of Stockholm, Sweden, Zahui was recruited by former Gophers coach Pam Borton. After redshirting in 2012-13 to acclimate to American schooling and basketball, she made an immediate impact in her debut season, when she was Big Ten freshman of the year.
Zahui returned for her sophomore season as a lighter, quicker and stronger player, with improved footwork and a deeper knowledge of her position. She burst into the national spotlight with her performance against Iowa, setting a Big Ten single-game record with her 29 rebounds. When star guard Rachel Banham was lost for the season with a knee injury in December, Zahui became the Gophers’ emotional leader as well, energizing her teammates with her trademark roar and her fiery personality on the floor.
Zahui ends her Gophers career with 1,135 points and owns program records for blocks in a career (240) and a season (135). Her 426 rebounds this season are a Gophers and Big Ten record.
Monday’s announcement dashed the hopes of Gophers fans who looked forward to her reuniting next fall with Banham, who plans to return for a fifth season of eligibility. Zahui is the sixth player to leave the program in the past three months. Junior forward Jackie Johnson, freshman forward Rangie Bessard and freshman guard Grace Coughlin left the team in January; sophomore guard Stabresa McDaniel and freshman guard Tory Jacobs were granted releases shortly after the season ended.
To be eligible for the WNBA draft, players must have graduated from a four-year college or university, completed their college eligibility, be four years removed from high school or be at least 22 years old during the calendar year of the draft. Candace Parker left Tennessee after her junior season in 2008 and was the No. 1 pick that year.
“That is awesome for [Zahui],” said Kiah Stokes, a senior center at Connecticut who is projected as a first-round draft pick. “I never thought I’d see somebody do that in the women’s game, especially since the pay is so different from the women’s and men’s side. She is good. She finishes well and has good footwork.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.