Kiwi basketball players want to make noise at March Madness

Six Kiwi basketball players are hoping to make a name for themselves on the biggest stage when they take to the court at one of the biggest events on the American sporting calendar.

Sam Waardenburg, Dan Fotu, Sam Mennenga, Quinn Clinton, Yuat Alok and James Moors will all take part in March Madness, the American college championship where the best teams in the country compete in a knockout format.

It attracts tens of millions of viewers from the United States and around the world and strongly highlights promising young prospects.

It’s the kind of opportunity that can overwhelm even the best players, but the Kiwis say they are ready to show the world what they are capable of.

Waardenburg, 23, helped his University of Miami team return to the tournament for the first time since 2018.

The 208cm (6ft 10) forward has bounced back brilliantly after missing the entire 2021 season with a foot injury. He assumed the role of the team’s starting center.

In January, he scored a career-high 21 points, including five three-pointers to help Miami not only upset, but smash North Carolina, while also playing a part in a bittersweet win over Duke. one of the best teams in the campaign.

Miami finished the season 23-10, earning them a 10 seed in the March Madness tournament. They are scheduled to face seven-seeded University of Southern California on Friday (Saturday NZT), and Waardenburg believes his side have what it takes to advance to the next round, highlighting wins over Duke and North Carolina earlier in the season.

“We know we can really beat anyone when we play well,” Waardenburg told 1News.

“Our expectation is to go in there and win this thing.”

Although confident, Waardenburg doesn’t have fond memories of March Madness.

The former Rangitoto College student was just a freshman when Miami was eliminated in the first round of the 2018 tournament thanks to a last-second buzzer-beater by underdogs Loyola Chicago.

The moment was made worse when Loyola keeper Donte Ingram hit the shot over Waardenburg’s outstretched arm.

Loyola Chicago's Donte Ingram hits a buzzer against Miami's Sam Waardenburg to win the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

It’s a memory he’s leaning on as he prepares for this year’s edition of the tournament.

“What I see as the biggest change between the regular season and the start of the tournament is a huge increase in the amount of media you’re going to have to deal with,” Waardenburg explained.

“At this time of year, I like to turn off my phone, not only from the media, but also from friends asking for tickets. It’s something that’s a little distracting at this point, but for our first-graders year, the media will take on a whole new level.

“It’s exciting, nerve-wracking, it’s all these different emotions, it’s just an experience I’m grateful for and one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities really. You have to accept it and you have to embrace it. to like. “

Rangitoto College alumnus Dan Fotu is also taking on a leadership role for his Saint Mary’s University team, which returns to the tournament for the first time since 2019.

Like Waardenburg, Fotu was just a bright-eyed freshman on the occasion and admitted to being “a bit stunned” when Saint Mary’s was knocked out in the first round.

But Fotu says his team are ready to make a name for themselves this time around.

Saint Mary’s have been on a tear this season, beating the top team in the entire country, Gonzaga, to earn a fifth seed at March Madness, the school’s highest ranking.

“We’re just a good all-round team from number one to number 12. We know what our role is,” Fotu told 1News.

“We’ve been in the top 10 in the country for defense probably all season now and we play other teams at our pace and we like that, we’re strong there.”

They certainly are. In all three meetings Saint Mary’s have had against Gonzaga this season, they’ve held star center Chet Holmgren to just eight points per game. Holmgren is expected to be a top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

“Chet is a guy who can do anything. He’s seven feet tall, he can dribble, he can shoot. I think he’ll go far, I think he’s definitely in the top five,” Fotu said.

“We have good defenders so he didn’t really show that against us.”

“We focus on playing D well, we wear shirts that say gritty not pretty, that’s just our philosophy, we’re gritty and we get to work.

“I hope to at least reach the sweet 16, at least two games.”

Fotu isn’t the only Kiwi on Saint Mary’s roster, with guard Quinn Clinton hailing from Christchurch.

“It’s so good to have a Kiwi as well as two Aussies [on the team]“, Fotu said.

“It really helps in a team full of Americans. It’s a sense of belonging, I can go to their apartments and relax and have a joke.”

Meanwhile, former Westlake Boys student Sam Mennenga will make his NCAA Tournament debut after helping his Davidson team qualify for the first time in four years.

The 6-foot-9 (206cm) stretch four has shot the lights from three-point range this season, hitting 44% from beyond the arc.

It’s the kind of pace former Davidson guard Stephen Curry would be proud of, and Mennenga said the now-NBA star has been very supportive of the team this year.

“He was on a few zooms with us and communicated with us. He gave us good tips, tricks and keys,” Mennenga said.

“It’s pretty special to have him with us and around our program.”

Stephen Curry led Davidson to a historic run at the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

Mennenga was thrilled to take to the pitch on his tournament debut and said he carried a ton of confidence after some superb recent performances.

“Being able to compete on a national level, but almost really on a global level in terms of viewership and all that stuff, it’s going to be a special experience and I’m excited and ready for that,” Mennenga said.

Davidson will face prestigious Michigan State University in the first round, a program that has produced a host of NBA stars, including Magic Johnson and Draymond Green.

But Mennenga said his team can surprise people.

“We were expected to finish sixth in the [A-10] conference, we finished first…the team has a ton of confidence to surprise even more people.”

Mennenga won’t be the only Westlake Boys alumnus at the tournament, with Moors also making his tournament debut for Colorado State.

James Moors (right) playing for Colorado State.

This is the first time Colorado State has qualified for the tournament since 2013, although it may be short-lived as they will face heavily favored Michigan in the first round.

Moors only played a minor role on the Colorado State bench, but made the most of his minutes, shooting an incredible 74.5 percent from the field for the season.

Finally, another Rangitoto College alum, Yuat Alok, will make his first March Madness appearance after a long college career that saw him bounce back in the United States.

Yuat Alok (right) celebrates with his teammate after scoring against New Mexico.

Alok played on six different teams over six years, but finally found a home during his senior year at New Mexico State University.

A tough first-round match at the University of Connecticut awaits, but anything can happen in a tournament full of uncertainty and surprise.

Calendar of Kiwis participating in March Madness (NZT):

James Moor- Colorado State v Michigan, Friday, March 18, 5:15 a.m.

Yuat Alok- New Mexico State vs. UConn, Friday, March 18, 11:50 a.m.

Dan Fotu/Quinn Clinton – Saint Mary’s v Indiana, Friday, March 18, 12:20 p.m.

Sam Waardenburg – Miami v USC, Saturday, March 19, 8:10 a.m.

Sam Mennenga – Davidson vs. Michigan State, Saturday, March 19, 2:40 p.m.

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