Robert Morris starting duo has fond recollectons of teaming with UConn star
Before UConn guard Kia Nurse burst onto the scene as the youngest member of the current Canadian national team program, she was able to play a starring role in undefeated runs in the 2011 U-15 and 2012 U-17 national championships along with Robert Morris starters Mikalah Mulrain and Megan Smith.
In 2011 Nurse was the tournament's MVP while Mulrain was named to the all-tournament team both in 2011 and 2012.
"We spent two years together on the provincial team and it was just an amazing experience," said Smith. "We have known each other forever since we were playing against each (in AAU) but finally we got a chance to be teammates for the first time. We won two national championships together so it was a really great feeling.
"She was definitely one of those players that you said 'she was going to go places.' She had goals of 'this is what she really wants to do. and she is going to get it because of her determination and willpower."
Mulrain, who leads the 16th-seeded Colonials with 46 blocked shots and 85 offensive rebounds, has nothing but positive memories of her time as Nurse's teammate.
"Meeting Kia, she is a really outgoing, fun person and I really enjoyed my time with her," Mulrain said. "Also, playing to represent Ontario and winning every year also made it fun. I was just really excited for her and she was such a hard-working player.
"It was the first time being a part of something like that, play together with a bunch of girls from all over Ontario, it was a really great experience for me and opened up more doors for me in basketball."
Nurse had one of the most remarkable summers any Canadian women's basketball player has enjoyed in recent memory when she led her team to an upset of the U.S. in the Pan Am Games gold-medal game and an Olympic berth thanks to winning the FIBA Americas tournament title. She admits that her experienced with Team Ontario set the stage for her future success with the national team.
"It was awesome," Nurse said. "It was the first summer when I had to be away from home, really focus on basketball and it really led into the national team stuff so for the first year to kind of be there, do that, win the championship and rep your province across your chest was a really fun experience.
"They practiced hard and they played hard, they had their own strengths and they work really well together to make sure they are successful. They are really great people on and off the floor, they are really easy people to get along with."
While there may be those who groaned at the prospects of being in the same bracket with UConn, Mulrain and Smith were among those excited for the change to face the three-time defending national champions as well as seeing their former teammate once again.
"I was excited when I found out that we were going to play them," Smith said. "It is going to be a good opportunity.
"I wanted to play against Kia one more team, we've old teammates and we get to play on the court one more time.
"All I can remember is me guarding her on the court when we were little and all of a sudden she is on the Olympic team and going to Rio, playing for one of the best teams in the country. I am really proud of her, just so excited to see her grow. She performed unbelievably, she got MVP of the Pan Am Games, she even came out with the Canadian flag at the closing ceremonies so it is kind of a like a proud moment for me to (see Nurse) achieve all of these goals that she set at a young age."
Robert Morris obviously had motivation in trying to win the Northeast Conference tournament to return to the NCAA tournament but the opportunity to send retiring head coach Sal Buscaglia out with a tournament berth made things all the sweeter.
"When knew that this was Coach Sal's last year and we really wanted to make it special for him," Smith said. "I think that is what really motivated us all season. We really wanted to get our seniors out in a positive way and I think we enjoyed that."
With Buscaglia's son Charlie announced as the Colonials' coach in waiting, there is a sense that things won't change too much even with a new person at the helm of the program.
"It is good knowing that things aren't going to be completely different, we are going to have mostly the same routines so I am not scared about any major changes," Mulrain said.