August 7, 2018 11:29:49 PM
STARKVILLE -- Patty Espinoza remembers when her daughter, Andra, wasn't interested in basketball.
But Andra Espinoza-Hunter always was in a gym because her brother, Stiven, played basketball and her father, Andre, coached the sport. It didn't take long before Stiven's shooting prowess stoked Andra's competitive side and ultimately led her to start playing basketball in the third or fourth grade.
Years later, Stiven realizes he is the one to blame for unleashing a sharp shooter on the rest of Division I women's basketball.
"She definitely stuck around and studied from my games," Stiven said. "I guess a little bit of me rubbed off on her along the way."
Andra's desire to emulate her brother as a shooter drove her to be better than him. The work with trainers and all of the extra hours in the gym paid off when she was named the No. 16 player (ESPN) and the No. 10 player (Blue Star Media) in the Class of 2017. Espinoza-Hunter earned a scholarship to play at Connecticut after she was named the 2017 New York Gatorade Player of the Year, co-Miss New York State Basketball, and a finalist for Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Espinoza-Hunter, a 5-foot-11 guard from Ossining, New York, played in seven games and averaged seven minutes per game at UConn before transferring. She announced in February she would attend MSU. NCAA rules state transfers have to sit out a year.
Espinoza-Hunter will see her first action for MSU this week when the Bulldogs play three games in Italy as part of a 10-day tour, which begins today.
"I love to shoot," Espinoza-Hunter said last month. "It is something I take pride in."
But Espinoza-Hunter knows offense is only part of the equation for those who play for coach Vic Schaefer. The Bulldogs have earned a reputation for playing stifling defense, which hasn't always been Espinoza-Hunter's calling card. Don't worry, though, because she said she is prepared to meet the standards set by Schaefer, whose nickname is the "Secretary of Defense."
"You can't play under coach Schaefer without having the defensive dimension as a part of your game," Espinoza-Hunter said. "I am going to work at it."
Schaefer said it is going to be a process for Espinoza-Hunter, Anriel Howard (Texas A&M) and Promise Taylor (Ole Miss), the program's other transfers, and freshmen Daphane White, Xaria Wiggins, and Jessika Carter to adjust to how he expects the Bulldogs to play defense, but he is confident Espinoza-Hunter and the newcomers to the program will make the transition.
"She is a tremendous basketball player, very smart and heady, and as you saw, she can shoot it," Schaefer said. "She can run and she certainly is athletic."
Espinoza-Hunter said her mother encouraged her to play on a boys team coached by her father, Andre, when she was in the fourth or the fifth grade. Patty said Andra already showed signs of taking to basketball. It helped she was a head taller than all of the boys.
Still, Patty said the boys were reluctant to pass the basketball to Andra. She said opposing coaches also didn't believe Andra was as young as she was because she was so tall. Those things didn't stop Andra from capitalizing on the opportunity to compete against the boys. She used that experience to make the high school varsity team as a seventh-grader. She earned a starting spot as an eighth-grader.
Espinoza-Hunter went on to score 995 points as a senior and lead Ossining High School to the state Class AA finals. She averaged 36.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 3.0 steals per game in her high school career.
"Just learning more about it and being in that environment put her in a place where she was interested," Patty said when asked to explain how Andra took to basketball so quickly. "She would pick up things really quickly. I remember in the third or the fourth grade she said, 'I want to play at Tennessee. I want to be a Lady Vol.' I think all of the girls at that time wanted to go there."
Patty said Andra and Stiven always were competitive and that she recalls Andra wanting to be better than her older brother.
Stiven, who didn't go on to play basketball in college, agrees. He feels the fact he and his sister had their father as a coach pushed them to be better basketball players. That's part of the reason why Stiven isn't surprised Andra has accomplished so much.
Despite her accolades and scoring more than 2,000 career points in high school, Andra doesn't own bragging rights over her brother. Stiven said he holds the title of the family's best shooter based on his victory the last time he and his sister had a shooting contest a "couple of summers back."
Stiven, who said he was a "pass-first point guard," said he and his sister have had conflicting schedules since then, but he said he looks forward to the next time he can shoot with his sister.
Espinoza-Hunter will relish her next opportunity against Stiven. Until then, she will continue to work on all parts of her game, especially defense, so she can be the multi-dimensional player her father always encouraged her to be.
Patty Espinoza feels Andra is moving toward that goal. She said Andra understands playing defense comes first and everything else will fall into place if she does that.
"In speaking to her, she said, 'I am such a better player now than I ever was,'" Patty Espinoza said. "I think also the coaches having confidence in her and showing their support in her has really helped her thrive. I feel in just speaking to her she has grown so much in the basketball piece and as a young adult."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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