February 8, 2018 9:59:33 AM
Andra Espinoza-Hunter's first time in Mississippi made a big impression.
Even though the 5-foot-11 guard spent only one full day and parts of two more in Starkville, it was enough to prove to her Southern hospitality isn't a myth.
The visit to MSU also convinced Espinoza-Hunter she had found a new place to play basketball and to go to school.
"I really didn't think that was going to happen," Espinoza-Hunter said Wednesday afternoon. "I went down there with an open mind and I told myself to try to be calm and not feel pressure. When I got there, I knew this was the school that I was looking for all along. Not to discredit any of the other schools, but I feel like Mississippi State University is the best fit for me."
Espinoza-Hunter conveyed that sentiment to MSU women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer and his assistant coaches Tuesday morning when she had breakfast with them and her mother. The decision came on what the Connecticut transfer believes was a trip that took her the furthest south she has been.
"After visiting and talking to the coaches, I felt like Mississippi State was my home away from home," said Espinoza-Hunter, who is from Ossining, New York, which is nearly 18 hours and more than 1,141 miles away from Starkville.
Espinoza-Hunter said she arrived in Starkville on "Sunday afternoonish" and left Tuesday. On Monday, she said she was delighted to experience No. 2 MSU's 67-53 victory against No. 7 South Carolina before a Humphrey Coliseum record crowd of 10,794.
Espinoza-Hunter said she knew more than 10,700 people were going to be at the game, but she said she didn't expect the crowd to be as "engaged" as it was. She said that definitely made an impression on her.
"The fans were really amazing. Just the people are amazing," Espinoza-Hunter said. "You always hear about Southern hospitality in movies and on TV. Being from New York, I am used to people walking past you and not looking you in the eye or saying hello.
"I thought Southern hospitality was a myth, but wow. Southern hospitality is a thing and it is real. The fans want the girls to succeed in any way possible."
While impressed with the atmosphere at the Hump, Espinoza-Hunter said she felt at home with the players and loved the "beautiful" campus. Most importantly, she said she believes Schaefer and his coaches will help her become a better basketball player and a better person.
Espinoza-Hunter said she possibly will pursue a major in kinesiology with a goal of becoming an athletic trainer. That career move, though, will have to wait until her basketball career ends. That's where Schaefer and his coaches come in because Espinoza-Hunter said she is eager to work with Schaefer to become a better defensive player.
"That's another reason I wanted to play for coach Schaefer," Espinoza-Hunter said. "He takes pride in his defense. I know he can help me develop my defensive skills."
Espinoza-Hunter said her strengths are 3-point shooting and getting to the rim and scoring. She said she plans to take two classes (English and Nutrition 101) prior to enrolling at MSU in June for summer school.
Espinoza-Hunter said there probably will be times when she gets frustrated because she will have to sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring from UConn. But she said she is going to work with her high school coach to stay in shape so she will be ready when she comes to Starkville.
"I can tell from the six years coach Schaefer has been at Mississippi State that he has done a tremendous job with the program and with the girls," Espinoza-Hunter said. "They are up and coming and getting better every season and every game. I feel he can help me with my weaknesses and also with my strengths. I feel he can develop me to my full potential."
Espinoza-Hunter scored 14 points in seven games this season at UConn. She was part of UConn's top-ranked 2017 recruiting class. ESPNHoopGurlz's Dan Olson rated Espinoza-Hunter the 16th-best prospect in the nation. She also was the 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year from the state of New York.
Espinoza-Hunter, who committed to UConn as a sophomore in high school, averaged 36.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 3.0 steals. She scored 995 points as a senior to break the New York State Public High School Athletic Association record.
"You're talking about a highly skilled player," Schaefer said. "She can do a lot of different things. When I see her on film, I see a lot of what Tori (Victoria Vivians) does. She is a big guard who can create a lot of problems for people. She us hard to defend. If you take one thing away, she can do something else.
"I love the kid's presence on her visit here. Her and her mom were wonderful. I think she really fits in with our kids, the character of our kids. I am really excited about her coming to Mississippi State."
Espinoza-Hunter called her time at UConn "good," but she said it wasn't a "good fit" for her. She said a lot of people have speculated she decided to transfer due to a lack of playing time, but she stressed it wasn't a good fit for her.
Espinoza-Hunter could fill a valuable need for MSU, which loses senior guards Victoria Vivians, Morgan William, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson after this season. She is the third guard to transfer to MSU in the last three seasons. Johnson was a standout for two seasons at Oklahoma State before transferring to MSU and sitting out the 2015-16 season. Jordan Danberry also transferred from Arkansas and joined MSU's active roster after the first semester.
Espinoza-Hunter was a member of the 2015 Under-16 United States National Team and averaged 10.0 points and 3.8 rebounds to help Team USA win a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas Championship.
Espinoza-Hunter joins MSU's 2018 recruiting class that includes Daphane White, the No. 48 player in ESPN's rankings, Jessika Carter, the No. 49 player, and Xaria Wiggins, the No. 54 player.
"I am really excited to be a part of the Bulldog family," Espinoza-Hunter said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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