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Jeff Kolpack, Published January 16 2013

Freshman from Australia provides Bison with a spark

Fargo - The play that Marena Whittle scored on at the buzzer to beat Oakland University (Mich.) last weekend actually started last summer when she traveled 19 hours to attend college at North Dakota State. It’s not easy for a teenager to play women’s basketball half a world away.

But the Bison freshman from Australia has solidified herself in the starting lineup as the team’s best rebounder.

“The whole flight over here was just a lot of mixed emotions,” Whittle said. “I was excited but also really worried and nervous. Is this the right thing to do?”

It didn’t take long for that answer. With less than two months remaining in the season, she said NDSU now feels like a second home to her. She celebrated Christmas with the family of teammate Liz Keena from Hastings, Minn.

With the absence of 6-foot-5 center Janae Burich for the season because of a knee injury, the 5-11 Whittle is being counted on to maintain control under the basket.

“The biggest thing is understanding to play every possession,” said NDSU head coach Carolyn DeHoff. “You have to do that. There are always parts moving out there, and she’s gotten a good understanding of that. What she brings to us is the ability to rebound on both ends of the floor.”

She was brought to the United States thanks to Bison assistant coach Tom Goehle, who as a member of the University of Sioux Falls (S.D.) staff the last two springs traveled to Australia. He saw Whittle play and knows her high school coach.

The Bison also signed 5-7 guard Bree Whatman from Australia, who will be a freshman next season.

“It’s a big thing for girls and boys to come over here and play basketball in college,” Whittle said. “It sparked my interest, and I sent them a few videos. The next thing you know, I’m signing (letter of intent) contracts.”

She stays in touch with her parents through Skype. She’s fielded the predictable questions from students at her dormitory. Several have told her they would love to go visit the country. And, predictably, she gets questions about her accent.

“Everyone always talks about it,” she said with a smile. “I’ve been working on it for 18 years. But everyone is super wonderful here. I feel like this is my new home.”

Getting used to the 35-second shot clock took some time from the 24-second clock she had in Australia. The speed of the game is faster.

As a freshman in the first half of the season, she felt like she needed to be more of a passer than a scorer, but that’s changing. Heading into a home Summit League weekend pair starting tonight with Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis and Saturday against Western Illinois, Whittle is averaging 5.9 points and 7.1 rebounds, which is fourth in the Summit.

“Now I’m starting to get my confidence on the court and starting to get back to where I was at home,” she said, referring to on-the-court production. “When you get a feel for the game, it’s definitely easier to play.”

At 2-3 in the league and 6-11 overall, NDSU is in a middle-of-the-pack conference logjam behind 5-0 South Dakota State. IUPUI is right there at 3-1 in the league and 9-7 overall.

Tonight, the Bison wouldn’t mind another game winner from their freshman forward.

“Now we’re getting her to understand she can score more,” DeHoff said. “For us at Oakland and for her to finish the play, that was nice.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia