Maria Jespersen played at the highest levels of European basketball, but she's never seen anything like USF's first round NCAA Tournament win over LSU on Saturday night.
"I played at the highest level in Denmark, and at the games there were 50 people at most," said the Bulls freshman, who averaged 5.0 points and 3.4 rebounds a game in just under 16 minutes a game this season.
"But yesterday, I've never been playing for a team that could get so many people come to support you. For me it's so incredible how much bigger the sport is over here, and how everything is so much more professional. I really enjoy it, it's amazing."
This season three freshmen in Jespersen, Laura Ferreira (Portugal), and Laia Flores (Spain) joined three more returning Europeans in Ivana Vuletic (Sweden), Ariadna Pujol, and Laura Marcos Candeo (Spain) on the roster.
All six have extensive experience for their respective national teams, and that seems to help them make an impact immediately.
"It's the pieces of the puzzle. They come over with a lot of experience," Bulls head coach Jose Fernandez said. It paid dividends on Saturday night, as Jespersen was a perfect 5-5 from the floor for 11 points in USF's second-ever NCAA Tournament win, and Ferreira made back-to-back three-pointers just after halftime to double USF's lead and shift the momentum immediately.
"I think both those guys have played in big games. For them to come in as freshman and be immediate impact at this level is tremendous."
"In Europe we play in clubs, here all your teams are together with your schools. In Europe, you play on a club team, and you play with that team your entire life," Jespersen said. "I've been playing with the same girls back in Denmark for like 10 years. The development is different. I think we do more weights actually than the high school kids do here. We are taught to post-up, dribbling skills. They don't give us a position to play. They just teach us everything about the game, and then we will find our natural role. So maybe that's one of the (areas) where we'll have an advantage."
That's not to say the transition to the American came is always easy.
"It is tough to come over here as a freshman. In the beginning of the year it was fine, but then like around December, because my body had never been practicing so much at this high a level where you have to be read all the time, I had a dive," Jespersen said. "But I managed to get with the coaching staff, and they said that's something all freshmen go through, so just take it easy."
Ferreira got discovered playing with the Portugese national team this summer, but had a dream to play college ball in America for quite awhile. "I think over there in basketball we're more mature sometimes, maybe not as physical too," she said. That basketball maturity helped her make an impact right away, with "L2" (so as not to be confused with "L1" Laura Marcos Canedo) starting 31 of 34 Bulls games so far this season.
"Laura Ferreira knocking down big shots, you have to respect that," said the American Conference's leading scorer Courtney Williams. "It's not like she's stepping up anymore. She has expectations. She's proven herself on plenty of occasions. Now we expect her to go out there and do it."
With at least two scholarships available in 2015, Fernandez and his staff will likely head back to Europe looking to fill some needs on what looks to be an even better USF team next season. And with a team full of players in a similar place socially and academically already in green and gold, don't look for the transatlantic flights to slow down for the Bulls anytime soon.