Archdeacon: New UD player, a Russian native, joins chorus asking to ‘STOP WAR’

Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova, center, holds a sign reading "No War" while standing with guard Ashley Owusu, left, and guard Shyanne Sellers, right, prior to a college basketball game against Florida Gulf Coast in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2022, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova, center, holds a sign reading "No War" while standing with guard Ashley Owusu, left, and guard Shyanne Sellers, right, prior to a college basketball game against Florida Gulf Coast in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2022, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

She found herself caught, quite literally, in midair between two worlds.

In late February, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, Taisiya “Tai” Kozlova took a brief leave from the University of Maryland women’s basketball team and flew back home to Moscow to see her parents.

During that visit she realized they — like other people in the neighborhood — were of a different mindset about the coming conflict than was she and her older sister, Elizaveta, an artist who now lives in the country of Georgia, a southern neighbor to both Russia and Ukraine.

By the time Kozlova was headed back, the assault on Ukraine had begun, and when her flight from Moscow entered Canadian airspace, it was ordered to turn around.

“The Maryland players and coaches were tracking her return flight and when it was denied entry and sent back, I heard some of them were in tears,” said Tamika Williams-Jeter, the new University of Dayton women’s coach who picked up Kozlova from the transfer portal early this month.

“They all were worried what was happening to her.”

Eventually Kozlova was able to catch a new flight to Cairo, Egypt and finally got back to Maryland on March 1. A few hours after she got to campus, she was back practicing with the team.

Although the Terrapins were looking ahead to their Big Ten Tournament matchup with Indiana in three days, she also was focused on what was going on back home as Russia began a full-out assault on its neighbor.

In the days and weeks and now months that have followed — as some Ukrainian cities, like Mariupol, have been bombed into rubble; civilians have been murdered in places like Bucha; and thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly deported to Russia, often with children separated from their parents — Europe has witnessed a carnage unlike anything it’s seen since Adolph Hitler ravaged the continent 80 years ago.

Kozlova found herself glued to the TV and the reports of the ongoing pain and devastation

“I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to watch the news all day long and know what was going on, but it just made me so very, very sad and just so frustrated,” she said when she spoke to me by phone from New Jersey, where she was spending a few days before eventually coming to Dayton next month.

“I never expected my country — the country where I grew up, the country I love and was very proud of — to do this.

“The government is just doing awful things to another country that is supposed to be culturally close to us.

“It’s just awful. I just pray for the best. I pray for it to be over.”

For the Indiana game, she did more than pray.

She used a felt-tipped marker to pen a pair of messages on the white midsoles of her black Under Armour sneakers:

“Het Bonhe” — which means No War.

“Stand With Ukraine,” to which she added a heart.

And 16 days later, before Maryland met Florida Gulf Coast in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Xfinity Center, she joined her teammates as they lined up across the court for the pregame playing of the National Anthem.

With her arms interlocked with those of the teammates on both sides of her, she quietly held an 8-by-11-inch sheet of white paper in front of her with another hand-printed message in big letters:

“STOP WAR”

The gestures took courage. She couldn’t be sure how the statements would go over with some people both here and back home.

“When a person speaks up, there’s not just going to be one side of feedback,” she said. “Different feedback is part of speaking up. But what I got was mostly positive.”

She said she felt support and love from many people and that further fortified her.

“I feel like if I have a platform, if I have an opportunity to speak up, I have to do it,” she said. “I have to use what has been given to me.

“I believe athletes should speak out in the world — things like racial and cultural and gender issues.

“If you have a platform, you need to bring awareness to the problems.”

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Taisiya Kozlova. University of Dayton photo

Taisiya Kozlova. University of Dayton photo

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Taisiya Kozlova. University of Dayton photo

Finding opportunities

Although she said her parents weren’t athletes — she said her mom works with a dermatologist and her dad works with cars — they were quite supportive of her and her sister.

And while Elizaveta gravitated to art, Taisiya went from skiing to basketball and as a teenager ended up playing for the WBC Spartak Moscow Region club team.

She said the way things are set up in Russia, an athlete must either be fully committed to playing basketball or just be a student. She said you can’t do both.

“I heard, in America, basketball players could continue their education, and I felt that was a pretty good option for me,” she said.

At age 17, she took off alone to play her senior season for the now-defunct Elevation Prep Academy in Sarasota, Florida.

Akyah Taylor — the all-time leading scorer at Elkhart Memorial High in Indiana, an NAIA All-American at University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne and a three-year player at Michigan State — not only became her head coach, but also her mentor and friend.

The Elevation Prep team had players from all over the world in that 2019-20 season, and Kozlova ended up the team’s top scorer, averaging 13 ppg and the classroom leader with a 4.0 GPA.

But the COVID-19 pandemic forced a premature end to the season and that hurt the players’ recruitment. Most of them ended up at junior colleges.

“That summer COVID really kicked in and all of my international kids didn’t get to go home,” Taylor said. “Tai and another young lady from Africa (Aichatou Camara from Dakar, Senegal) actually came back with me to Indiana for the summer.”

Taylor said it was a real eye opener for Kozlova:

“She had only been in America for a year then, and that whole summer she played in open gyms we had with some of the top high school stars and kids coming back from college. It was pretty gritty, and she learned she had to be more physical.”

Kozlova has a good outside shot and a high basketball IQ, and initially she drew interest from Florida International University, Mercer and Liberty.

Then Maryland joined the mix, and she jumped at the chance to be a part of one of the best programs in the nation. The Terrapins are a perennial NCAA Tournament team, have made the Sweet 16 seven of the past 11 seasons, have played in five Final Fours and won the national crown in 2006.

In two seasons at Maryland, the 6-foot-1 Kozlova got limited minutes off the bench. She averaged 2.3 ppg in 20 games as a freshman and 1.3 ppgand 10.2 minutes in 21 games as a sophomore.

More importantly, Williams-Jeter said, is what she did on the practice court for the Terrapins:

“Just like with Anyssa Jones, who we got from Ohio State, she was was playing at a very high level every day — in a Top 15 program — and she was going up against some of the best players in the nation. All-Americans.”

Kozlova agreed: “It was always tough, always very competitive and, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The environment was good. And I learned so much.”

And the Terrapins learned from her, especially as she faced the traumatic events back home the past few months.

“The team has learned so much through her experience,” Maryland head coach Brenda Frese told a local TV station in March. “We’re here to support her through it. After what she’s been through, this is where she needs to be — with her Maryland family.”

While she speaks highly of her Terrapin teammates and coaches, Kozlova said she entered the transfer portal because she wanted a chance to get more playing time.

When Williams-Jeter saw her name, she contacted Terrapins assistant coach Lindsey Spann, who had played for her when she was an assistant coach at Penn State.

“I asked Lindsey, ‘What’s up with Kozlova?’ And the first thing out of her mouth was: ‘We love her. She’s a great kid. She’s going to work hard. She just needs an opportunity,’” Williams-Jeter said.

Eventually, Kozlova came to UD for a visit, and Williams-Jeter said she spent more than hour talking to her.

“For me, when I’m recruiting, it comes down to a character check,” Williams-Jeter said. “There are some kids we passed on this year who were really good, but they didn’t pass the character test.”

She said Kozlova passed with flying colors:

“I researched her. I know what all she’s faced. It wasn’t just being so far away from home and going through a pandemic, but now there’s the war and not being of the same mind as her parents are on it. That’s a lot for a kid who is just 19 or 20. And she’s been tremendous through it.

“I just can’t wait to get her here.”

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Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova (14) drives to the basket ahead of Iowa guard Sydney Affolter (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Credit: Charlie Neibergall

Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova (14) drives to the basket ahead of Iowa guard Sydney Affolter (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Credit: Charlie Neibergall

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Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova (14) drives to the basket ahead of Iowa guard Sydney Affolter (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Credit: Charlie Neibergall

Credit: Charlie Neibergall

Using her platform

The invasion of Ukraine has led to the call by some for Russian athletes to be banned from sports.

FIFA banned Russian soccer teams from international competition, and the International Skating Union banned Russian and Belarus athletes from competing in international ice skating events.

Track and field and rowing followed suit, and Wimbledon has barred Russian players from competing this summer.

And that has brought up a fight with the men’s and women’s tennis tours — the ATP and WTA — and many high-profile stars who say Russian athletes shouldn’t pay the price for the actions of President Vladimir Putin.

The flip side of the argument contends that the international community must tighten the screws any way it can to stop the war, and sometimes that brings collateral damage.

Some Russian athletes — like Kozlova — have voiced their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.

The New York Rangers’ left winger Artemi Panarin has spoken out against Putin, and Calgary defenseman Nikita Zadirov has posted “NO WAR” and “STOP IT!” messages on his Instagram account.

Soccer standout Fedor Smolov, tennis pro Andrey Rublev and biathlon champion Larisa Kuklina have all opposed the war, as well.

Williams-Jeter played with Russian athletes in her WNBA career and gave clinics in both Ukraine and Russia as part of NBA Global and U.S. State Department ventures. She has a keen interest in the area, and she and Kozova talked about some of that when they met.

“Her maturity is different because of what she’s gone through off the court,” Williams-Jeter said. “And to be truthful, I’m more drawn to that part of her than I am the basketball.

“Don’t get me wrong, she’ll really help us on the court, but when you have someone who has that many layers to them, basketball can just be the icing on the cake.”

Kozlova is one of five new players — four transfers and an incoming freshman — Williams-Jeter has added to the team. That leaves one spot to fill, and Williams-Jeter is hoping to sign a transfer from an ACC power who was one of the top recruits in the nation a year ago.

As for Kozlova, she said after visiting UD she has an added appreciation of the program:

“At first, my main goal was just to be able to play more. But after meeting Coach Tamika and the rest of the coaching staff, I felt the atmosphere there to build the program and bring the old tradition back. I really want to be a part of that and help build it and I feel like I can.

“I’m just going to work my hardest and play my heart out and see what it brings.”

Williams-Jeter already knows that last part.

“When you coach young women and younger people, sometimes they don’t use their voice. They don’t use their platform.

“She’s someone who doesn’t take anything for granted . She stands up for what she believes.

“If anything, she can teach this team, this program, this university that everybody has a voice. Even when your back is against the wall, you have a platform you can use to motivate and change and make people think.”

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Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova (14) goes up for a shot against Minnesota forward Erin Hedman, left, and forward Grace Cumming (43) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in College Park, Md. Maryland won 94-62. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Credit: Julio Cortez

Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova (14) goes up for a shot against Minnesota forward Erin Hedman, left, and forward Grace Cumming (43) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in College Park, Md. Maryland won 94-62. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Credit: Julio Cortez

Combined ShapeCaption
Maryland guard Taisiya Kozlova (14) goes up for a shot against Minnesota forward Erin Hedman, left, and forward Grace Cumming (43) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in College Park, Md. Maryland won 94-62. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Credit: Julio Cortez

Credit: Julio Cortez

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