Australia to America, Aussies taking over

Iowa State junior forward Bride Kennedy-Hopoate drives to the hoop during the Cyclones’ 57-53 loss to Northern Iowa. 

Jack Macdonald

Canberra, the capital of Australia, is 9,104 miles away from Hilton Coliseum, but you don’t have to look more than a few yards inside Iowa State’s home to find two Australians.

Those Australians, Lauren Mills and Bride Kennedy-Hopoate, are the current lifeline the Iowa State women’s basketball program has developed with the land down under. And to no ones surprise, the rise of Australian women playing college hoops is on the up and up. Out of the Power Five Conferences, there are currently 20 Australians suiting up.

Funny enough, Kennedy-Hopoate and Mills have had one other encounter before standing next to each other in the cardinal and gold colors. Prior to Mills leaving Australia on Christmas Day, she was looking through old action photos and noticed a face that was familiar to Cyclone fans. 

That face was Kennedy-Hopoate in the background of one of the photos. Apparently the two had played against each other in the national tournament at the U18 level. And then the trash talk ensued like the two Australians were old pals. 

“We kicked their butts,” Kennedy-Hopaote said with a smirk. 

The Rise

It wasn’t until recent years that the Aussie’s have really made an impact in women’s Division I basketball. As of the beginning of the 2017-18 season, there were roughly 65 suiting up at the top collegiate level. However, that excludes players like Mills who didn’t enroll at Iowa State until early January.

Nonetheless, while the number is small, the impact is massive. For the Cyclones, just like how they don’t have to look too far for their own Australians, they don’t have to look too far for one of the best Australians in the nation.

“I would say right now Kristy Wallace is probably the best player on the best team, having the biggest impact of the Australian’s,” said Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly.

Wallace happens to be on the No. 3 team in the country, the Baylor Lady Bears. The same Baylor team that has torched the Cyclones twice this season. Wallace might not be the most prolific scorer, but what she does with the ball is next level.

The Lady Bears’ point guard averages 4.9 assists per game, 10.7 points and holds a respectful 2.3 assist to turnover ratio. The all-around dominance is what wreaks havoc on Big 12 opponents, and when she can match her season average of 4.9 rebounds a game, the senior point guard is one of the best in the country.

“[Kristy] is an international kid that played a lot of basketball in both collegiate and for her native country, Australia,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. “She can take you off the dribble. She can shoot the three. She’s very unselfish.”

Not to knock Wallace’s talent, but Fennelly believes the Australians have yet to send their best over to North America. Take the 2016 Rio Olympics for example; the Australian national team had 12 women on it. Only three had played college basketball in the states and on the current team – the Opals – there were just five on the roster of 17 players.

“But I think in the women’s game, there’s some good players over here, but the best ones are still over there,” Fennelly said. “The players in that system are being groomed to be professional basketball players in Australia, they’re not coming to the states to play ever.”

The Home League

Unlike the NBA, with the likes of Ben Simmons and Matthew Dellavedova to name a few, there are currently just a handful of Australians in the WNBA, which is regarded as one of the top leagues in the world. But, perhaps just as good as the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) is the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) located down under.

Under the WNBL there are six leagues in the second tier. And for the Cyclones’ Kennedy-Hopoate, that’s where she got her career started. The Brisbane native started to put her basketball career on the forefront of her mind at the age of 13 playing for the Australian national youth teams along the way.

As a matter of fact, Kennedy-Hopoate climbed through the Australian ranks alongside Wallace. The two grew up next to one another and now get to live out their lifelong dreams in the same conference, one of the best in the nation.

“We won championships together,” Kennedy-Hopoate said. “That’s like a sisterhood there … We’re representing our country and our families.”

According to Kennedy-Hopoate, the Australians in America have formed a community with each other and all stay in touch. Some, like Wallace, took a more direct route to the Division I level than Kennedy-Hopoate. But the 6-foot-4 forward finally found a fit in Ames as one of the more physical players in the nation.

Iowa State’s Aussies

Kennedy-Hopoate is averaging 7.4 points per game and 4.2 rebounds. The physicality has emerged as a problem, however, as she has racked up 56 personal fouls in just 18.5 minutes per game. Kennedy-Hopoate at times has shown what she could blossom into.

But for now she has been relegated to a bench role after struggling with foul trouble early in games. However, it might not be a bad thing to be put in that role. In the three conference games Kennedy-Hopoate has started on the bench, she has totaled 38 points. In the other five games, she has just 16 total points.

Perhaps part of that has to do with the style of play the Aussies play. They tend to play a more physical style – evident by Kennedy-Hopoate’s play – and she knows that an adjustment needs to come.

“Some people said people are more physical over here, but I would say that I get away with a lot more back home — a lot more physicality,” Kennedy-Hopoate said. “They’re calling a few things and I’m like ‘oh really, like that’s a foul?'”

While Cyclone fans have had the luxury to watch Kennedy-Hopoate, they have yet to see Mills play. The Tasmania native has a proven track record to churn out good performances on the highest stage of play. From the U14-U18 levels, Mills donned the Tasmanian jersey playing at a high level, but since she has arrived to the United States, she has noticed a different style of play.

“I think the strength of the players, the amount of power, especially the post players play with, is something that is very different to Australian basketball,” Mills said. “Obviously, size is a factor as well. We don’t have as many big bodies back in Australia to compete against.”

Mills and Kennedy-Hopoate aren’t the first Australians Fennelly has recruited to Ames. Lauren Mansfield starred for Iowa State from 2010-12 as the starting point guard, but Alison Stacey might be the most well regarded Australian. Lacey laced up for the Cyclones form 2006-10 and was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2010 WNBA Draft.

The two current Australians hope to have as big of an impact on the program as Lacey and Mansfield had, but for now, the two will continue to grow with a familiar Australian accent in the locker room.

“It is nice ’cause [Bride] does understand things that I wouldn’t understand or don’t quite understand in America,” Mills said. “So, she is good at telling me ‘oh this is what this means’ or different ways that you call offenses or plays.

“We’ve just been very helpful. And to have someone that understands is good.”