This article, published in January 2006 in the Arizona Daily Sun, takes a look at Sandra Viksryte’s journey from Lithuania to Arizona and her collegiate basketball career.
Headline: WELL WORTH THE WAIT
January 05, 2006
By Ed Odeven
Good things come to those who wait,” Bob Marley reminds us in one of his songs. Maybe so, but no one ever said being patient was easy. It tests our character time and again. NAU senior forward Sandra Viksryte faced a patience-testing ordeal when she decided to transfer from Oklahoma State to the mountain campus last December. By doing so, she had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules and lost a full season of eligibility.
“It was really hard,” Viksryte said after Wednesday’s practice at the Skydome, two days before the 8-5 Lumberjacks’ home game against Texas-Pan American. “Even your practicing is not the same when you cannot play.”
Viksryte, a 6-foot-1 forward from Lithuania, finally got the chance to don a Lumberjack uniform in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 19.
In that first game, “I was feeling that I was getting cold, hot, my face colors (were) changing,” she said. “I was just so nervous because I didn’t play for a year. It seems like, ‘OK, I’m 23 years old and I have a little bit of experience but you just sit for one year and it’s really hard to watch your team play.’
“You just do it during practice and try to work hard to help them. During the game, you cannot do anything.”
First-game jitters aside, it was still an impressive debut.
Viksryte scored 16 points off the bench and sealed NAU’s 84-83 win by hitting two free throws with 0.4 seconds left in overtime.
After the game, she called her parents in Lithuania and told them about the dramatic triumph.
“My mom started crying,” Viksryte remembered.
In the team’s final two games of the tourney, Viksryte had 11 and 10 points against South Florida and Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, respectively.
She made her first start against Nevada Dec. 28 and had seven points and six rebounds, two assists and one block in a 66-58 NAU victory. She also missed 10 of 12 shots from the field, a sign that she’s still working on getting back to top form.
But Viksryte follow that performance with a season-high 18 points on New Year’s Eve in a 14-point loss at Nebraska.
“It’s been over a year since she actually played competitively,” Lumberjacks coach Laurie Kelly said, “and so with that you’ve just got to get back into that basketball sense — not getting into foul trouble, defensively knowing where to be in the right place.”
Senior Nicky Eason, who sat out a the 2003-04 season after transferring from the University of Denver, added: “She had quite a bit of a layoff. I personally know how that is. … Sometimes it just takes a while to get back in the groove, but she’s trying and I think she’s doing a good job. She will get better as the season goes on.”
Viksryte began playing basketball as a 13-year-old in her hometown of Siauliai, Lithuania, the Eastern European nation’s third-largest city. A year later, she had risen to the top of her age group and began playing for the national team.
She played for the Lithuanian Junior National Team that placed second at the 1998 World Championships. She also played for the Lithuanian squad that was eighth at the 2000 World Championships.
After graduating from high school, Viksryte attended Weatherford (Texas) Junior College and helped the school make it to the 2003-04 NJCAA National Tournament. She averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds during league play, helping the Coyotes win the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference crown and Region V title.
While at nationals, Kelly first got to watch Viksryte play. And she liked what she saw.
“She plays very European, I guess you would say,” Kelly said. “And some people say what does that mean? A lot of European players tend to be more finesse players. You watch Sandra and she does a lot of spin and scoop and reverse shots and more acrobatic shots than maybe you’d see typically in most games in the United States.”
Viksryte took official recruiting visits to Oklahoma State, Penn State and NAU.
“It’s funny when you look at those three schools and one kind of doesn’t fit in as much,” Kelly said with a smile.
FROM OKLAHOMA TO FLAGSTAFF
NAU wanted to sign Viksryte to a scholarship after her junior-college days were completed.
It happened, but not the way Kelly had hoped.
“We felt really strongly about the fact that we thought we had a possibility of getting her. But when push came to shove, I think she was influenced a little bit by outside sources to go to Oklahoma State,” Kelly said.
Viksryte admitted as much to Kelly in a phone conversation in 2004.
“She called me two days before schools started at Oklahoma State and said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to go here,'” Kelly recalled Tuesday. “At that point, she had never signed a (national letter of intent), she signed a financial aid agreement, so she could be recruited up until the first day of school.
“When you are an international student, you run into, obviously, issues with visas and transferring to (another) school. I just didn’t feel like two days was enough to get her to walk away from Oklahoma State, so I told her, ‘Best of luck, but there’s not a lot we can do.'”
After the first semester of the 2004-05 season, Viksryte called Kelly and said she’d obtained a release to leave OSU.
NAU had a scholarship available.
“We weighed the pros and cons (of signing her) and I knew Sandra could be key for us, and we took that chance and brought her here,” Kelly said.
“I’ve never been disappointed. I’ve always been very excited to have her. … In the end, she ended up here. We’re excited to have her for conference play and feel like she could be a big asset at our run for a conference championship.”
In retrospect, Viksryte admitted she’s happy she came to Flagstaff.
“I like it here much more,” Viksryte said. “I’m happier here because I really like the coaches and I love my teammates.”
The feeling is mutual.
“She works hard and she’s lots of fun,” NAU junior center Alyssa Wahl said. “We always joke around about her English”
(Assistant) coach Tony (Perotti) always calls her Yoda because she phrases her sentences like him.”
In recent games, NAU has employed a tall frontline, consisting of three 6-footers — Viksryte, the 6-1 Megan Porter and the 6-2 Wahl. This combination enables NAU to put Porter and Wahl on the perimeter, which draws post defenders outside, and leaves Viksryte in the paint.
“Sandra has great post moves and can draw fouls pretty easily,” said Wahl, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last year.
“With her it gives us a lot more dimension. It should be a great advantage for us.”
“She’s not a perimeter threat like the two of them,” the coach said. “But she is dynamite one-on-one in the paint against just about anybody I think, big or small. So she brings us an element to the team that I just don’t think we had before.”
“It’s just different kind of post moves,” Kelly said of Viksryte. “You’re not going to see Alyssa Wahl spinning around, stepping through and ball-faking and pass-faking for shots. She’s very agile. She runs the floor very, very well.”
In addition, Viksryte’s experience in international competition and her age, 23 (she turns 24 on Jan. 20), are beneficial to the team’s younger players.
“She’s a very mature player,” Kelly said. “She wants to win. (She’s) very competitive.”
After her playing days at NAU are over, Viksryte, a business economics major, hopes to begin a career in real estate in the United States.
But first things first.
Viksryte said her personal goal is to win the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year award this season, an accolade Eason shared with Sacramento State’s Kim Sheehy last season. As far as team goals, Viksryte has big aspirations: to win the Big Sky tourney and earn the school’s first-ever NCAA Women’s Tournament berth.
“Now I’m a senior, this is my last year, so I want to go to nationals,” Viksryte said. “I want to help the team to nationals.”
And that would make the wait well worth it, wouldn’t you say?