Junior guard Sara Vujacic was living her dream of playing Division I basketball with the Maryland women's basketball program, but something was still missing.
In the Terps' first 12 games, Vujacic played seven or fewer minutes seven times. Known as a 3-point shooter coming into the season, she attempted zero threes in five games during the 12-game stretch. One of the top junior college recruits in the nation was struggling to find a consistent role in Terps head coach Brenda Frese's rotation.
"At one point," Vujacic said, "I was thinking, 'What am I doing here?'"
Vujacic got her answer during the second half of the season. Starting with Maryland's matchup against Michigan Jan. 12, which Vujacic pinpointed as the turning point of her season, she played 10 or more minutes 12 times in her next 17 opportunities. She's averaging 3.2 points and shooting 32.1 percent from 3-point range entering the NCAA Tournament, and she helped the Terps win the Big Ten regular-season title.
Maryland is the third school in as many years for the 5-foot-11 Vujacic, who played at Tennessee-based junior colleges Motlow State (2016-17) and Walters State (2017-18) the previous two seasons. Though the 23-year-old Slovenia native's numbers at her two previous stops -- and her family's background in the game -- suggested Vujacic was destined to contribute at a top program, it wasn't quite that simple.
"She's been at a JUCO the past couple years, but it's obviously hard being away from home without your main support system," said freshman guard Taylor Mikesell, one of Vujacic's roommates. "I think the biggest thing with her is she's such a hard worker. At some point, she was going to gain that confidence just from getting comfortable with everybody."
On the surface, the fact that Vujacic developed into a high-end basketball player makes sense. Her brother, Sasha Vujacic, was a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 and played 10 seasons in the NBA with the Lakers, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks. He played on the Lakers' championship teams in 2009 and 2010.
Sara Vujacic, however, didn't start playing hoops until she was 13. She preferred volleyball, track and swimming until she picked up a basketball.
"I really didn't like basketball, like at all. My brother was in the NBA and everybody wanted to get his signature, and I was like, 'I don't want to have anything to do with basketball,'" Vujacic said. "But then I had to play some middle school game, and I just loved it. As soon as I went on the court and I shot it, I knew, 'That's it. That's my sport.'"
The first school that showed interest in Vujacic was Nebraska, and that interest was mutual. But Vujacic had to go the junior college route for academic reasons, and the Huskers pointed her to Motlow State.
The 2016-17 season represented a building block in Vujacic's maturation as a person and player. Her grasp of the English language improved with the help of her teammates. She was introduced to a more physical style of play. She watched her brother play in an NBA game for the first and only time when the Knicks visited Memphis in April 2017.
"I started in Tennessee at a JUCO, where I didn't want to be. I wanted to be a D-I athlete," Vujacic said. "But my path took me the other way, so I had to make the best out of it. At first it was hard, trying to get used to American culture."
Nebraska's interest waned while she was at Motlow State, but she got calls and texts from other schools. Vujacic spent the 2017-18 season at Walters State, where she averaged 16.7 points per game and shot better than 45 percent from 3-point range en route to Tennessee Community College Athletic Association Player of the Year honors.
In doing so, Vujacic drew the attention of Maryland. Frese sent then-assistant coach Bett Shelby to watch Vujacic play after guard Blair Watson tore her ACL during a January 2018 practice. Frese also knew guard Eleanna Christinaki could turn pro, magnifying the need for a guard.
Frese later watched Vujacic for herself, which prompted the coach to make Vujacic a priority. Vujacic visited Maryland after her season and signed with the Terps shortly thereafter. But challenges awaited Vujacic once the season started.
"She was unsure of herself," Frese said. "You're walking into, gosh, a top-five, top-10 program and kind of trying to assess the talent [that's] on the roster, whether you belong and whether you can play at this type of level. She, early, probably put too much into that and that kind of slowed her a little bit."
That changed in January. Though her stat line against Michigan -- eight points, 2-for-3 from long range in 11 minutes -- doesn't stand out in the box score, Vujacic said that's when her confidence level ticked up. Her teammates recognized it, too.
"Especially in that Michigan game, we really started relying on her to come off the bench and give us some good minutes and give us at least two, three threes and some defensive stops a game," Mikesell said. "She's been really consistent with that. I think the biggest thing that clicked for her was just trusting the way she plays."
Vujacic will try to help Maryland get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015, but she's set to help next year, too. The Terps are scheduled to return their entire backcourt for the 2019-20 season: Kaila Charles, Channise Lewis, Sarah Myers, Watson, Mikesell and Vujacic.
Staying at the same school from one year to the next will help Vujacic, too.
"I will work in summer. I know the plays. I know the coaches, atmosphere," Vujacic said. "I know everything right now, so I'm going to be confident from the beginning."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Issue 252: March 2019
Originally published March 15, 2019