Once Marlene Stollings began hearing the chatter, the Gophers coach understood she might be saying a premature goodbye to Amanda Zahui B. The sophomore center’s phenomenal season was attracting attention from teams in the WNBA and European professional leagues, and early projections for the WNBA draft speculated that Zahui could be the No. 1 pick if she chose to turn pro.
Zahui announced Monday that she would leave the Gophers after two seasons to enter the draft April 16. Tuesday, she said that after much deliberation, she simply decided the time was right — and Stollings did not disagree. Though Zahui’s departure leaves a massive void in a shrinking roster, Stollings said Tuesday that she is choosing to view the 6-5 center’s historic decision as a blessing for Zahui and a good reflection on the program.
With the late signing period beginning April 15, Stollings plans to add more players who can excel in her uptempo style. As the record-setting center from Sweden moves on, Stollings vowed that the Gophers would, too, saying that Zahui’s departure will not affect her continuing effort to overhaul the program.
“We realize she is most likely a No. 1 pick in the draft, and that doesn’t come along very often,’’ Stollings said. “She wants to capitalize on that while she’s hot, and it’s certainly understandable.
“We’re already on the recruiting trail, and [looking for] who’s next. When you have something like this happen so quickly, I think it’s only a positive in terms of the big picture and our recruitment and what we’re trying to do with the program as a whole.’’
Stollings said she hoped Zahui would return, and she admitted it was “tough’’ for her team to hear the news when some observers were predicting the Gophers could be a Final Four team next season with Zahui and Rachel Banham. Banham, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 10 but will come back for a fifth year of eligibility on a medical hardship waiver.
It was just as difficult for Zahui to make her choice. She became one of the most talked-about players in the college game with her huge leap forward this year, and a string of dominant late-season performances made her a candidate for national player of the year honors. That improved play, and the larger leadership role she took on in Banham’s absence, also gave Zahui confidence that she was ready to try a higher level.
Zahui said she has aspired to play professionally since she took up basketball 12 years ago. When it became clear that she could make the move now, she prayed over it, discussed it with her family and wrote down lists of pros and cons. Her desire to return home to play in Europe, and her eagerness for a greater challenge, ultimately settled it.
“It was very hard [to decide], and it took a lot of time,’’ said Zahui, the only player in Gophers history to be named to the first All-America team by the Associated Press. “At the end of the day, it felt like what I really wanted to do.’’
Zahui is the sixth player to leave the Gophers since January, leaving only six returning on the roster. DeLaSalle graduate Allina Starr transferred into the program last winter and will be eligible to play after the 2015 fall semester. Last fall, the program signed 6-1 guard Danielle Garven from Canada and junior college point guard Keyondra Jenkins.
Stollings said she plans to bring in more players who fit the style, system and culture she is implementing. She is looking for players in the mold of Shae Kelley, the versatile, highly skilled forward who transferred into the program last summer for her final college season.
“We were very supportive of those departures and feel they have ended up at institutions that better fit their skill set,’’ Stollings said of the five other who left. “We’ve been here about a year, and there was quite a bit of change of culture and progression of the program that needed to take place. And we’re just in the infancy of that at this point.’’
Though it is extremely rare for women players to leave school early to turn professional, Zahui noted that she always has forged her own unique path — something Stollings could appreciate.
“She has an opportunity to [turn pro] as a sophomore, which is unprecedented in women’s basketball,’’ she said. “And why not? We’re all for setting records and being first in a lot of areas.
“Kudos to her for having this phenomenal opportunity. We’re extremely proud of her. We’re all smiles, and we will be on draft day.’’