Feb. 4, 2003

By Emily Harris
OU Media Relations

At the early age of nine years old Maria Villarroel knew she wanted to attend a university and play basketball in America.

"Everyone wants to come to America, but it's not easy," said Villarroel.

Basketball has been a non-stop reality in her life since childhood. "Once they (the community) built a basketball court in my hometown, I just start shooting balls," said Villarroel. "I was the only girl practicing with all the boys."

After joining her first basketball team, which consisted of all boys, she showed extreme interest and love for the game. So much, that her family moved 12 hours away to another state so she could play on a girls' team. Her career took off from there and she eventually became a member of the Venezuela National team. Villarroel credits playing against some challenging international opponents like Cuba and Brazil for her development in the game. She has received much attention in Venezuela for her basketball skills and was named the player of the year in 2002.

Villarroel began her basketball career in the United States at Independence Community College in Kansas. At the end of that season (2001), she had earned conference player of the year honors after averaging 22.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.1 steals per game. She also shot an impressive 79.1 percentage from the free throw line.

"My coach from the national team had some contacts over here and we worked from there," Villarroel said.

At the conclusion of that season, she journeyed south to Northeastern A&M in Miami, Okla., where she played under head coach B.J. Smith. Smith also coached former Sooner standout Rosalind Ross at NEO for two years.

After transferring to NEO she topped the National Junior College Athletic Association statistical categories with 24.4 points per game and a field goal percentage of 73.4 percent. Villarroel also ranked ninth in the NJCAA in three-point field goal percentage, hitting 44.6%, and steals, pocketing 3.6 per game. In addition, the 5-8 guard averaged 5.1 rebounds per game and shot 75 percent from the free throw line and 72 percent from the field. Those numbers drew tremendous attention from several NCAA Division I schools, including Oklahoma.

Making a late decision in May of her sophomore season, she chose Oklahoma over Baylor.

"I'm very proud to be at OU. Oklahoma has very good academic and athletic programs," said Villarroel. "The coaches and players care about each other. They're always there for you. Since I'm away from my family, I need that.

"I talk with them (her family) once a month, but I only get to see them for about two weeks each May. It's always been hard being away from them, especially my two brothers, but when I get really busy and need a break that's when I miss them the most."

Her current team is her family away from home. Since she doesn't have an American driver's license and it's too cold to ride her bike, her teammates and friends give her rides to practice and elsewhere.

The summer time provides her an opportunity to go back to her roots and play with the Venezuelan National team. Villarroel's love and interest in the game continues to grow as she's currently the top scorer for the Sooners, averaging nearly 17 points per game. However, her ability to attack the basket has her ranked sixth in the NCAA in field goal percentage, hitting better than 62 percent.

Villarroel is happy with her decision to come to Oklahoma, and she just may stay awhile longer after she graduates with a degree in computer engineering.

"I like living here. There are so many opportunities," Villarroel said.