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Watch: Focus on nationals as Abela aims to close off season on a high

Sophie Abela (centre) celebrates with her teammates at Otero.

Malta international SOPHIE ABELA made history this month after becoming the first Maltese basketball player to win a postseason tournament in the US with Otero Junior College, winning the NJCAA’s Region IX tournament. However, the journey continues today as the Otero Rattlers play in the National tournament in Lubbock, Texas. Kurt Aquilina spoke to Abela about her finale at Otero…

Last Saturday, the Otero Rattlers beat Casper College 89-94 in overtime and despite having limited minutes while nursing a hyper-extended knee, Abela put herself on the scoreboard anyway to win the Region IX tournament, a feat the side had been waiting to achieve since losing to the same opponent last year in the semi-finals.

The Malta guard says it was a great feeling to have accomplished this before leaving the school in search of a College scholarship.

Asked about being the first Maltese to do this, Abela admits that even though it makes her very happy and proud, she didn’t really think about it.

“I want to make sports in Malta start changing. But the fact that I was the first was a great honour,” Abela told The Times of Malta.

Now facing Butler Community College in the opening round of the National Tournament, the team is one of the underdogs as they are currently the 21st seed.

“We didn’t get any votes all season to be a top-25 team. Western Nebraska were ranked top-15, Casper were ranked top eight and they still are. So, the fact that we beat both teams and never got a single vote obviously motivated us even more,” Abela said.

“We made it to the level that they are so now that we’re facing Butler and going to Nationals, our expectations are to win the first game, be part of the Sweet Sixteen and take it from there.

“Obviously being in the national tournament is different. The past week we had a couple of days rest and recovery but now we’re focusing on one thing.

On Monday, if we win, we forget about that team and start focusing on the next one on Wednesday. However, if we lose, that’s the end of our season.

“But I’m still happy either way that we made it to the National tournament. It’s on such a different level in the way we organise moving forward to it.”

The Rattlers finished their regular season in March with a 17-3 record, despite having five games cancelled throughout the year due to COVID-19.

Abela admits it was very hard to stay motivated but lauded her coach Landon Steele whom she said “helped us stay locked in”.

“It was a tough season,” Abela recalled.

“We started our first game with a loss but then I think individually we had many more players that can get to the rim on their own so the fact is we managed to put in the extra work, extra practice and took the time to study our opponents, and during our practice we could link what their defense and our offence can do.”

One upside to the season was, however, the introduction of a reduced number of fans in the bleachers.

“The fact that you’re actually going to play, and your student friends are coming to watch you helped a lot,” Abela said.

“At school, we’re like a family – a big community – so the fact that they’re supporting us and saying things to the other team helped us and we appreciate it so much. It’s so different to play with actual supporters – it was a great change.”

This was all the more beneficial for the side as they hosted the Region IX tournament last weekend. Abela admits the homecourt advantage was of great help.

“Last year, Casper hosted it and the gym was packed and there was a beautiful atmosphere but this year since we got to host it, we knew that not only did we have homecourt advantage but also our fans were there to support us and who made such a big impact.”

Next steps

Abela, named captain at the beginning of the season, has embraced the “moral responsibility” the role has given her, especially considering the trust coach Steele has shown in her.

“For me, it wasn’t always getting to the rim and scoring but it’s also about keeping my teammates motivated,” Abela explained.

“To have that kind of trust from my coach meant everything to me honestly. He’s like my father-figure over here. He’s not just the coach – he comes to practice with his family and we know that he’s such a nice guy.

“(Steele) and I have built a very strong relationship over last year and this year. He knows the way I play and this year, I was basically thinking what he wanted before he actually says it. So, I think that helped a lot. He trusts me and if he tells me to guard a player so that she can’t score for the first three minutes, I’m going to give my 100% to him and to my teammates.

“Having a good relationship with my coach makes me more comfortable on court and if I have to make a risky decision, I know he’ll back me up.”

However, with this being the end of her Junior College experience, Abela’s next step is getting recruited to play college basketball next season. While usually coaches carry out recruitment visits to look at future prospects, students during the COVID-19 pandemic have been handed an added challenge to be seen.

“Last year, we had coaches coming to watch us during training sessions and this year we didn’t even get one, so it obviously affected a lot,” Abela said.

“During the regional tournament, since we were the ones hosting it, we had a lot of scouts and recruiters coming so that made up for the rest of the
season. However, if you want to recruit a player you have to constantly see them – it was very different.

“I’m in contact with a couple of schools, however I haven’t made a decision yet and I’m hoping to get more options to be honest. But right now, we’re focusing on Nationals so be it Monday or if we make it to Wednesday, I’ll make that choice after because the season’s not over yet.”

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