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Tigers' Kacperska steps up as starter

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Nikola Kacperska grew up in Poland and played all sports. One day, Kacperska's mother told her daughter she had to choose one activity.

Recounting the story with a laugh, the Fort Hays State University freshman said she watched the movie "Space Jam."

"Michael Jordan, I want to be like him, and I started playing basketball," she said.

Kacperska's choice helped her eventually come to the United States and become the first international player in the six-year Tony Hobson era.

The freshman point guard has moved into the starting lineup the last two games and helped FHSU achieve a pair of big home wins versus Emporia State University and Washburn University last week.

"This was kind of my dream to come to the States, and playing here," Kacperska said.

Kacperska has averaged 17.7 minutes per contest, leads the team with a 42.5 3-point percentage with 5.6 points and 50 assists, tied for second for the 15-4 Tigers.

"Niki is really competitive, and she will not back down," Hobson said.

Kacperska and sophomore Beth Bohuslavsky have manned the point for a squad receiving votes in NCAA Division II.

"Niki, I think it's clicking for her," junior center Kate Lehman said. "She is a freshman, and we expected a lot out of her coming in, and she is really starting to fill those shoes. She hits some big free throws, some big 3-point shots, and she is really great at just finding the open man.

"She is great at deception," she added. "She has very deceiving passes. She has a very good ability to drive in and then kick out to the shooter. That's something that's rare in a point guard, and we have it with her and Beth, so that's helpful."

On Wednesday, FHSU (8-4 MIAA) will play at rival University of Nebraska-Kearney (7-12, 3-9 MIAA). Start time is 5:30 p.m. in Kearney, Neb. Hobson called UNK at least 15 points better than last winter's struggling team. The Lopers have lost multiple close MIAA games, rather than blowouts in 2012-13.

"They are not very far off from having a lot more wins," Hobson said.

After the 5-foot-6 Kacperska selected basketball, her mother wasn't very happy, and figured her daughter was too short for the game. At times, Kacperska had to go to the gym without letting her parents know she was practicing basketball. Now, Kacperska said her mom is happy, but misses her daughter. The family stays in contact through Sykpe, calls and messages.

"I am homesick sometimes," Kacperska said.

When Kacperska, 20, was a teenager, a website contacted her to promote her career with videos and information that were eventually sent to United States college coaches.

Kacperska at first tried two years ago, but couldn't pass an exam. Kacperska, who had played for the Under-20 Polish National Team, tried again. Fort Hays, like many colleges, receives plenty of tape from various sources. FHSU assistant coach Talia Miller tries to watch all the video and pass along potential prospects to Hobson.

"She was so much faster than the girls she was playing with, and just was a lot more skilled," Miller said. "We get a lot of foreign films, and they are not necessarily very skilled, but I knew that Niki was pretty skilled."

Hobson was impressed, too. Kacperska, because of various conflicts, couldn't get a visa immediately. From July 4 to 14, Kacperska averaged nearly seven minutes a game in eight contests for the U20 European Championships.

Hobson worked on getting everything in line -- including clearance with NCAA and FHSU -- most of the summer. For a time, Hobson was uncertain whether Kacperska could come.

Based on the information he'd received, Hobson believed Kacperska was a 5-foot-8 shooting guard who could play point guard. Instead, Kacperska is 5-foot-6. She is actually a sophomore by age, but NCAA rules allow a European player to start its athletic clock one full year after completing high school and still have full collegiate eligibility.

"Other than that, she's been about what we'd hoped she'd be," Hobson said.

Kacperska, who had virtually no experience playing man-to-man, took awhile to get adjusted, especially defense. Kacperska, who speaks solid English, had to sometimes learn the language, too.

"First months here were really tough," she said.

"She has come a long way," senior Katelyn Edwards said. "...She is a spark to our team, and she is doing amazing things."

Kacperska has done well against zone defenses, which she saw a lot in Europe. That included Washburn's zone last weekend. She finished with 11 points, two off her career-high, and her second double-digit game.

"Very aggressive kid," Washburn coach Ron McHenry said.

On Jan. 18, Kacperska and the rest of the bench struggled in a 49-48 road loss to Northeastern (Okla.) State University. Kacperska played just six minutes, easily her lowest of the season. A few days later, starting sophomore guard Taylor Chandler suffered a knee injury that has cost her at least several weeks.

In the last four games without Chandler, Kacperska has averaged 21 minutes per contest, with 7.8 points and 2.8 steals. Before Jan. 23, Kacperska had just 17 steals this season.

"Taylor is a really good defender on our team," Kacperska said. "When she got hurt, I was like, we need to do something to fill that role. I have to do something too, because Coach was thinking that I am not that good at defense. Maybe I should show him."