Aussie Funda Nakkasoglu getting full SEC experience with Gators

It had been more than a year since Australian guard Funda Nakkasoglu stepped onto a basketball court on game day. During the 2016-17 season, she had waited patiently to put on the royal blue and bright orange University of Florida jersey.

With thousands of fans cheering her on at Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida, Nakkasoglu couldn't hide her emotions. After two years at Utah State, she had transferred to Florida. This was the start of the next chapter of her basketball career.

"It was incredible. I had been waiting so long to get that chance to step back on the court, I was so excited," said Nakkasoglu. "I had a stomach full of nerves, but they were good nerves and as soon as that ball got tipped, I was ready to go."

Nakkasoglu has the athletic gene. She is the daughter of Turkish athletes -- her father, Can, played professional basketball and her mother, Meneske, played volleyball.

At Utah State, Nakkasoglu earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2015, First-Team All-Mountain West in 2016 and set a record for scoring average (19.2 PPG). But she wanted to pursue a new challenge at Florida, where there would be new teammates, new coaches, new fans, well, new everything.

"I just wanted to challenge myself and see at what level I could perform and just play with great people and coaches and get another experience. But mostly, I wanted to see what I'm capable of in a bigger conference on a bigger stage," Nakkasoglu said.

Indeed, the SEC is very different from the Mountain West Conference. Stepping onto the court in Gainesville during the first regular-season game against Georgia State in 2017 proved unlike any other for the Australian basketball star.

In fact, Nakkasoglu embraced that unknown. After all, she left her hometown of Hampton, Australia, at age 18 for Utah State without ever setting foot in the quaint town of Logan prior to orientation. Leaving everything she knew behind in Australia -- including a junior basketball resume that boasted time with the Melbourne Boomers of the Women's National Basketball League under the tutelage of three-time Olympian Michelle Timms -- Nakkasoglu confidently moved 8,500 miles to experience the American basketball dream.

"I knew I would've regretted it if I hadn't at least tried," Nakkasoglu said. "Ever since I was young, I heard about the opportunities of playing in America. I definitely wanted to embrace the opportunity to play here. I thought if I could play the game I love, get a degree and get it all paid for at the same time, what's a better option than that?"

After graduating with an economics degree last spring, Nakkasoglu, a fifth-year senior, wants her final season with Florida to be fully dedicated to her leadership role and making her lasting mark on the Gators' program.

During her first season with Florida in 2017-18, Nakkasoglu proved that her talents were worthy of a bigger stage. Nakkasoglu racked up 76 3-pointers, including seven in a game twice. The tenacious guard ended the season by burying at least one three in 23 straight games, tied for the second-longest streak in program history.

The Gators have struggled to stay afloat this year; they're 5-15 overall and last in the SEC with a 1-6 conference record. Nakkasoglu isn't fazed. She finds determination in the rebuilding process alongside head coach Cam Newbauer, both of whom made their Florida debuts in 2017-18.

"I just want to be the leader that the coaches want me to be this year and focus on that," Nakkasoglu said. "We are rebuilding our program at the moment, so I want to help put Florida on the map in women's basketball because I don't feel like we've been there in the most recent years. And I just want to say that I helped start something great."

Nakkasoglu wants to utilize her experience playing in almost every game as a freshman and sophomore at Utah State, as well as her international experience, to help the younger players at Florida. And so far, her impact can be felt with the whole team, especially freshman forward and fellow Aussie Kristina Moore.

"The team and the coaches have really made me feel at home. Funda being here has made it so much easier. Having someone that you can instantly connect with makes the transition so much easier than I could've imagined," Moore said. "We are really close. It's so much easier to connect with someone from where you are from."

Although Nakkasoglu has spent nearly five years in the States, the potential to return to Australia to reunite with friends and family always looms in the back of her mind. But Nakkasoglu is ready to embrace whatever comes after Florida.

After participating in a multiphase selection camp this past summer for the Turkish senior national team -- traveling and practicing in China, Czech Republic and Canada, among other countries -- Nakkasoglu feels like a European contract might be in her future.

No matter where she ends up on the map, she's certain about one thing: "I would love to pursue basketball after college. I would be sad to leave the game. It's something I love and something I want to continue to pursue no matter what."