NBA Academy India Women’s Program Alumnus Ann Mary Zachariah has taken step in realising her ultimate dream of playing in the WNBA, by becoming only fourth player overall the Academy to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. The Kerala native will play for Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, to play NCAA Division 1 college basketball.
After being a standout at Howard Junior College in Big Spring, Texas averaging 15.4 points per game in her first collegiate season while shooting 40.2 per cent and pulling down 10.4 rebounds per contest, Zachariah, daughter for former India internationals, Zachariah Thomas and Jeena Zachariah, understands NCAA is a big step up from Junior College but is confident and hopeful of doing her best.
Zachariah, who was part of the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program and represented India in two junior FIBA tournaments, will play at the center position in the D-1 NCAA basketball in the Mountain West Conference under head coach Ryun Williams.
News18 Sports caught up with the 19-year-old 6’3’’ hoopster for a freewheeling caught as she discusses life in the USA, her development as a player, her parents’ influence on her budding career and more.
You’ll be playing in the NCAA Divison 1 College Basketball this year and it’s a big step up. What does this scholarship means to you first and foremost?
It means a lot to me, because I am the fourth person in India to get into NCAA so it means to a lot to me, to my family. Of course it means (a lot) to my country as well. It’s a big thing for everyone. So, yeah, I am so happy. I’m so excited to play.
It’s kind of a virtual three year try-out, right for the WBNA? What are your goals, aims that you have as set yourself?
My biggest goal is to play in the WNBA. Right from the ninth grade, I always dreamt about that every time. I have only three years left in college, so I have to do my best. Every single time I have to prove myself and to them that I can do better. I have to be unique from everyone. So, that is my dream, to play WNBA.
From a short terms goals point of view what are you looking for? What are those bucket list or check marks that you want to tick during your time at NCAA?
NCAA is like really tough competition for me. They (players) are bigger (in) size, speed. I’m like 6’3’’, so I have to improve my speed to guard like a 5’5’’. So I got it improve my speed, my defensive thing, you know, to move, to guard players like 5’5’’ or 5’10’’. So I think that’s my thing to improve.
What’s the biggest change that you have seen playing when you were in India to playing in the States for three years now?
India and America’s basketball is very different, because here it is very competitive playing against each other. I mean competing against each other, challenging ourselves, even the coaches are so into it while playing. And for me my improvement was on the lines of being stronger, my physicality, my mentality, everything I have improved. So I feel much more confident while playing now. And it’s all because of the coaches that train us.
What are the challenges that you’re faced so far? You used to play forward and now predominantly play center now, how are you coping with those sort of challenges?
My challenge has been physicality. Because I was not that strong. For a 6’3’’ I was skinny person. And here where I play, the players are like 6’4’’ — bigger, stronger than me. It was a big challenge for me to play against them. But all my coaches, my teammates, they were there for me, supported me. But yeah, it was the physicality for me (the toughest part).
Talk to me about the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program, that you were a part of and in a way has been the stepping stone for you. How was the experience and how much did you learn being part of that?
The Reliance Foundation helped me a lot because it started when I was in seventh grade. So it helped me to dream, you know. It show me how to love basketball. They help everyone – every last player that didn’t know basketball, didn’t have anything to do with Basketball.
When I was in 9th grade, I got the chance to play for the NBA Girls program. That was a big thing, because, seeing a lot of foreign coaches, you know, and few WBNA players, I learned on and off the court. And it was so fun, I was improving constantly. I know it was just 2-3 camps, but it allowed me to learn a lot; knowing each other, knowing a lot of players, and even they have a lot of players involved who helped us improve our basketball.
I will take you a bit back and ask about your start of basketball journey – You parents are former internationals – the obvious question here is did Basketball come naturally to you?
I always loved basketball. When I was here they didn’t force me to play basketball. It just came into me, you know, but still they always supported me. I started basketball when I was in 5th grade. I was in Tamil Nadu as my parents were working in the Southern Railways, but the basketball was not so serious in that school. It had more focus on academics, so my parents decided to I change my school to Kerala so I could play a lot of games.
And it was really tough for me, because, being away from my parents from 6th grade and staying in the dorm. But playing there, against seniors was really a good experience, and I felt so good because I’ve played a lot of games against them, playing with them, getting to know a lot of things with them. I represented the State teams and I got to play twice in the Indian team as well. And now here I am, in the USA.
A fun question here — who you have modelled your play on, I mean. Is it more of your dad? Is it more of your mom?
I mean, my mom …. In many ways both, actually. But still my mom, because she’s so competitive, yet very calm while playing. I have learned a lot of from her, because when I went for practice she always came with me. She used to coach me. Even my dad also used to come and showed me some moves.
You’ve been in the USA for 3 years. Do you missed home and what do you miss the most?
Of course. Indian food (chuckles) … Parotta and chilli chicken.
I have been here for 3 years. Last 2 years, I was at high school care in Kansas and playing there, and lot of coaches saw me play by the end of my senior I got a couple of offers from colleges like division one college and junior ones. But I didn’t feel like going that because I knew it could it better than that. I also got like 5 to 6 offers from Division 1 colleges yeah, because they saw me like at 6’3’’ that I can play as guard who are generally 5’5’’, 5’6’’. Not many 6’3’’ to can do what I can shoot outside. I can play inside. I can dribble, I could pass and that’s the most the coaches are looking at and the end of the year. I want to like 2 college visit and I thought Colorado State might be good for me
My final question, who is your role model?
My favourite person in WNBA is Candice Parker. Even she is like 6’5’’, you know I can compare my game to her; she plays both inside and outside; and her personality — She’s very bold, very competitive, she just challenges herself and she just wants to win. So I love the way she plays on the court and how she carries herself off the court as well.
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