Big Finnish off to solid start

By Kevin Wilson

In Riikka Lehtonen’s home city of Turku, Finland, it’s the ice where most star athletes can be seen. One game into the Eastern New Mexico University basketball season, the Zia post could be primed to be a star on the hardwood.

The Zias got off to a solid start Tuesday with an 87-61 victory over Western New Mexico, and Lehtonen got off to a solid start with a career-high 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting. It was a noticeable start for Lehtonen, a 6-foot post who had only reached double figures once during her junior season.

“I’m more comfortable,” Lehtonen said before Thursday’s practice. “I know what the coach wants. He wants me to be physical and grab some boards, play defense, be a leader.”

In high school, being a basketball player was unusual enough in Finland, where hockey takes most of the headlines. Lehtonen, who went to the same high school as Montreal Canadiens star Saku Koivu, said that Finland high schools do not offer basketball, and the sport is instead played in clubs.

“In Finland, basketball doesn’t get much attention,” Lehtonen said. “My coach in Finland really wanted me to (go to the U.S.).”

And that’s what she did, playing her senior season at Centerville High School in Ohio. She later played junior college basketball at Kilgore College in Texas, and took an opportunity to stay in the Southwest when Zia coach Dan Buzard recruited her.

“I knew she was a strong player inside, had a good outside touch,” Buzard said. “For her size, she really runs well. Those are pretty good intangibles to have.”

With Buzard missing last season while recovering from a brain tumor, there were struggles for both Lehtonen (4.5 points per game) and the Zias (finished 13-14 and lost a tiebreaker for an LSC playoff berth). Now, Buzard’s hopeful that Lehtonen has turned the corner and the team will follow suit.

“Riikka came back with a new attitude this year on her game,” Buzard said. “She developed some moves, her shooting touch from the outside is better and her game inside is better.”

The first piece of evidence came Tuesday, as she was one of four Zias in double figures.

“I think that’s something she could do every night if we give her the opportunity,” Buzard said. “She posted up strong, she scored when we needed.

“We’ve got good offensive players and our kids can really run the floor. Our defense needs to get better. We can always put up points.”

Though Lehtonen may not always put up the most impressive numbers for ENMU — teammate Tiana Bryant posted a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds in the win — Lehtonen’s presence could make the difference in how the Zias play this year. If Lehtonen and Bryant are playing well, Buzard can use junior Elizabeth Richards anywhere on the court and create numerous matchup problems.

“E’s playing everywhere we need her to play,” Buzard said. “Tiana and Riikka are primarily playing the post, but we’ve got good backups with Rochelle Vance and Brittney Gillespie. We just need to keep them out of foul trouble.”