By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA, APRIL 16, 2014 – Inga Orekhova is living the American dream she’s been chasing since she was a little girl growing up quickly overseas.
The USF senior guard is on track to graduate with a degree in communication relations and soon she’ll be headed to Atlanta to pursue a career in the WNBA after being drafted by the Dream with the 18th overall pick in Monday’s draft.
“Now it makes me want to work out even more. I don’t even want to leave the gym,” Orekhova said.
Orekhova, originally from Sevastapol, Ukraine, has been working for this moment nearly all her life with a goal of following in the footsteps of her parents, who both played pro basketball overseas.
Orekhova was about 12 years old when she was running up a huge hill in Austria while helping her mom rehab from an ACL injury and that’s when she realized just how hard she had to work to follow her parents’ footsteps to basketball stardom.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to run up and down the hill when everybody is out having fun,’” Orekhova said. “I was like, ‘I’m quitting, I’m going to play chess and I’m done with this.’”
Orekhova’s mother, Svetlana, quickly replied, “But you promised me when you make it you’re going to buy me a Chanel dress.”
“I just kept running and Monday I reminded her what I promised her,” said Orekhova, who became the highest-drafted Bull in program history, passing Andrea Smith (35th overall, 2013) and Jessica Dickson (21st overall, 2007).
“It’s great for our program to have three players drafted in the last seven years,” USF head coach Jose Fernandez said. “It shows the type of kids we’re recruiting and developing, and now they’re getting the opportunity to play at the next level.”
Orekhova put herself into a position to get drafted by becoming the 20th player to record 1,000 points in a USF uniform and it took her less than three seasons to accomplish the feat. Orekhova stepped up her game big-time this past season, averaging 11.6 points and shooting 36.7 percent from beyond the arc with 92 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game.
“I still think her best basketball is ahead of her,” Fernandez said. “I think she’s diversified her game, putting it down on the floor, creating off the dribble and getting it to the rim. She’s doing a much better job on the glass.”
The Dream certainly noticed Orekhova’s production and head coach Michael Cooper said the front office was sweating out the wait to select her in the second round.
“She’s just what the doctored ordered,” Cooper said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We put her up high (on the draft board) and we kept our fingers crossed because we knew there were a couple of teams in the first round that possibly could take her.
“I just kept telling everybody, ‘Relax, relax, she’s going to be there,’ and there she was at 18,” Cooper added.
The outcome was very satisfying for Cooper considering how long he’s had to wait to coach Orekhova. Cooper, who won five NBA titles playing for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980’s, was coaching at USC when he recruited Orekhova out of high school.
“I really, really was impressed with her demeanor and how she carried herself as a young lady,” Cooper said. “Most international kids grow up a little bit quicker than kids in the States because of the things that they go through and they’re not given anything. That was the thing that struck me.”
Orekhova went on to impress Cooper even more as a Bull, ranking 15th in program history with 1,072 points while making 218 3-pointers and setting a single-season USF record for free throw percentage (89.0, 2013-14). Orekhova made a name for herself on the national stage at the end of the 2012-13 season, when she averaged 21 points per game during the Bulls’ NCAA tournament run.
“It’s going to be great to coach her, especially now at this level because she’s a lot more mature and her basketball IQ is already high and she understands the game,” Cooper said. “She is what we’ve been looking for as far as the style of play – up-tempo with a lot of spring for shooters. I think Inga is definitely going to benefit from that and of any team that could have taken her we fit her style the best.”
Orekhova will get acquainted with the Dream coaching staff on April 25, when she heads to Atlanta to get her pro career started. Training camp begins April 27 and Orekhova continues to work hard in USF’s Muma Center preparing for her big opportunity.
“It feels great. Yeah, I got drafted but I still have to go to camp and prove myself,” Orekhova said. “What happened now won’t really matter unless I got to camp and show out.”
Cooper said Orekhova will have plenty of chances to shine during camp because most of the team’s starters won’t be ready to go right away after playing overseas.
“Inga will get probably about 10, 11 practices in before we decide what we’re going to do,” Cooper said. “She’s going to get a chance to really show what she’s about and be in great condition. She’ll have a head-start on a lot of the ladies coming in because they’ll know a good portion of our offense before our starters come back.”
Cooper said the Dream will play two exhibition games before starting their season at home against San Antonio on Friday, May 16. Orekhova will be wearing No. 3 at the next level and said the reality of becoming a pro won’t really sink in until she puts on the Dream jersey.
“I think it’s going to hit me when I get there,” she said.
Orekhova will have plenty of followers after accomplishing a ton at USF on and off the court.
“She’s been a great role model for our basketball program and our university,” Fernandez said.