The first time Gophers women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen called Masha Adashchyk, the conversation came with a little surprise.
Adashchyk is a native of Minsk, Belarus. She was playing junior college ball at Panola College in Carthage, Texas — a small town that is more than 5,000 miles away from her home, both literally and culturally.
“I said, ‘Hello, coach,’ ” Adashchyk recalled. “And she answered me in Russian. ‘Hello, how are you?’ I’m like, Russian?”
Guess there was some extra benefits to Whalen playing for years over there during the WNBA offseason.
With the Gophers, Adashchyk has seen her playing time increase since Destiny Pitts left the team. A 5-11 guard who plays bigger on the defensive end, she has become a regular part of the rotation and has made six three-pointers (on only 11 attempts) over the past five games.
But her stay here will be relatively short. Adashchyk transferred here as a senior, so it will be only for one season. But how she got from Belarus to Minnesota, via Texas, is an interesting story. And she hasn’t wasted any time making a mark here.
“She’s one of the hardest-working people on this team,” senior Jasmine Brunson said. “She tries to kill us in practice. We’ve had to tell her to kind of calm it down a little bit. But she’s super energetic and positive.”
Why not? She’s living her dream. Adashchyk didn’t start playing basketball until she was 10 or 11, relatively late by American standards. But, early on, she had a coach that talked about basketball here and showed his players videos of NBA and WNBA games.
“So it was kind of a dream to come over to America,” she said. “I never thought it would happen. I didn’t think about it seriously. I didn’t know how, or what I’d have to do.”
But it turns out she was good at the game. Good enough to play for her national team in an under-18 tournament. And she got a taste of this country back in 2015 when she was a part of a program that sent athletes from several European countries to America. They visited the University of Tennessee and learned about legendary coach Pat Summitt. Then they went to the 2015 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Tampa, Fla. That’s when coming here became a real goal.
Later, a friend she made on her national team went to Panola. She came back after a season and helped Adashchyk start the process of going there, too. She helped Adashchyk write a letter to the coach and got her in e-mail contact with the staff. Adashchyk got a scholarship offer, then dived into the process of securing a visa.
“Finally,” she said, “I ended up coming to America.”
And, apart from the basketball, it was a culture shock.
“Everybody is very nice in Texas,” she said. “Especially in small towns, where everybody knows each other. Strangers would say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And they’d smile at me. I’d be like, ‘Why are you smiling? Who are you? Why are you saying hello?’ But that made it easier.”
In two seasons at Panola, Adashchyk averaged 12.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. In her final game there, in the playoffs, she scored 50 points. It was during that season Gophers assistant Danielle O’Banion started following her. That led to some e-mail contact with Whalen, then that phone call. After a recruiting trip here — Whalen took her to Moscow on the Hill in St. Paul — Adashchyk came to Minnesota.
“We call her ‘Big Mash,’ because she plays bigger than she is,” Whalen said. “She’s someone everyone wants on their team for drills, because she goes so hard. She’s someone the team has really taken to, enjoyed playing with.”
Like everyone on the team, Adashchyk is disappointed with how the Big Ten Conference part of the schedule has gone. The Gophers are 2-7 in conference play heading into Thursday’s game with Nebraska at Williams Arena. But she is enjoying Minnesota which, she said, is more like Minsk than Texas was.
After she graduates she plans on returning home, where she hopes to play professionally.
“I can say my mentality has changed,” she said of her time in the United States. “Of course, the basketball. It gave me more confidence. It made me more ready to play [back home].’’