By Martin Cleary
This is a shout-out to all female athletes. Stand up, continue to take your best shot and forge ahead with determination to give yourself and your sport a higher profile.
If there is one athlete who reflects this message on International Women’s Day, it would be Ottawa basketball player Merissah Russell.
When it comes to the international aspect, that’s what her career is all about. During her 2021-22 season alone, she is a sophomore for the University of Louisville Cardinals women’s basketball team and also played for the Canadian women’s senior team at last month’s FIBA women’s World Cup basketball qualifying tournament in Osaka, Japan.
A determined and focused individual on the court and in the classroom, Russell recently said goodbye to her teen years. But for the past few years of that stage, she already was showing characteristics of being a strong young woman. And she’ll continue to grow as a confident adult, having turned 20 on March 3, and as a player in her final two years at Louisville and for Canada in the 2020s.
As a reserve guard, Russell stands up and plays hard at every Louisville practice. Sometimes, she’ll sub-in for a few minutes of game action, make an impression on the scoresheet and will take valuable lessons from those experiences into her junior and senior years as a Cardinal.
No. 5-ranked Louisville has an overall record of 25-4, but Russell only played in 16 games, studied the game from the sidelines for 11 matches and missed two recent games while representing Canada.
Playing for the elite NCAA Division 1 women’s program at Louisville, which is something she wanted to do for most of her time at Cairine Wilson Secondary School through the Capital Courts Academy, it takes time to crack the starting five or be one of the first substitutes coming off the bench. The Cardinals have a 14-player roster, which means the starting five are supported by nine reserve players.
But Russell is good with her development as a player and benefits from the Cardinals’ program. When she was named by Canada Basketball as one of four non-travelling players for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2021, she accepted that decision because she knew that would give her more time to train with her Louisville teammates last summer.
Statistically, Russell has played 112 minutes for the Cardinals in 16 games this season and collected 22 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. That’s slightly lower than her 2020-21 freshman season numbers of 135 minutes in 20 games, 43 points, 44 rebounds and eight assists.
In February, she missed three Louisville games – on-court wins over Syracuse and Notre Dame as well as a forfeit victory against Virginia – to play for Canada in Japan.
For the opening, quarter-final game of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship last Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina, Russell didn’t dress for the game and it must have been tough to watch from the sidelines.
The Cardinals led Miami Hurricanes by 14 points after three quarters, but lost 61-59 on a buzzer-beater shot by Destiny Harden, who scored the game’s last 15 points for the most improbable win. Harden finished with a career-high 27 points, 10 rebounds and hit 11 of her 15 field-goal attempts.
Louisville will wait to see where it will be seeded and where it will be placed in the NCAA women’s basketball championship bracket.
Russell also has been a player in transition with the Canadian women’s team as she develops her international game. This has been an evolving process.
After being a significant contributor for Canada at the U16 FIBA Americas championship, she was promoted to the Canadian women’s team as a 16-year-old for the Commonwealth Games, where she averaged 6.8 minutes, 2.0 rebounds and 2.2 points a game.
During her 2018 and 2019 seasons, Russell also was a key player for Canada’s U17 and U19 teams respectively as well as playing for the national women’s team at tournaments in Latvia, Belgium and Great Britain.
During the 2022 FIBA qualifying tournament in Osaka, Canada advanced to the women’s World Cup with a 1-1 record – a 96-64 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as an 86-79 loss to Japan. The game against Belarus was cancelled, which automatically saw Canada move into the World Cup as one of the top three countries.
The World Cup will be played in Sydney, Australia, and Canada has been placed in Group B for games against Serbia, Sept. 22; France, Sept. 23; Japan, Sept. 25; Australia, Sept. 26; and Nigeria, Sept. 27.
Russell played a total of 12 minutes and averaged 3.5 points and 0.5 rebounds a game in Osaka.
“It is always an honour to represent Canada and my family on the world stage,” Russell said in a Cardinals press release. “Playing for my home country is something that always gives me goosebumps and I am very grateful to coach (Jeff) Walz, the Louisville coaching staff and my teammates for allowing me the opportunity to travel overseas during our season.”
Walz was equally excited by this international opportunity for Russell, a 5-11 guard. Russell was one of 19 players on the Canada Basketball short list before being named to the final 12-player roster.
“When recruiting internationally, I think it’s important to understand the significance of these tournaments, which will sometimes take place during our season, and to make sure international student-athletes like Merissah get the chance to compete,” he said.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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