Brazilian Izabel DeAngelo arrived last fall at Neuse Christian Academy from South America with plenty to learn. Topics ranged from improving her English to adjusting to American high school basketball.
One lesson that wasn’t necessary, though, was to keep her head up on the court. She already knew a no-look pass might be on its way from one of two other Brazilian foreign-exchange students who arrived at Neuse a year earlier – guards Maria Albiero and Izabela Leite.
DeAngelo learned the hard way at Brazilian national camps that Albiero and Leite are talented ball handlers who can deliver an assist in a snap.
“You have to pay attention or a ball might hit you in the face,” said DeAngelo, smiling sheepishly as the 6-foot-4 sophomore lowered her head.
Albiero, a 5-7 senior, is ranked by ESPN as the No. 23 point guard in United States recruiting. She signed a scholarship offer in November with Brigham Young.
Leite, a 5-9 junior, is a combo guard with top programs recruiting her, including Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
DeAngelo is expected to draw her own long list of suitors the next couple years.
“We wanted to come here to play for the opportunity to get a college education and scholarship,” said Albiero. “It’s been a great experience for us here. The other players have made us feel like family.”
The Brazilians attend the K-12 private school of 300 students on Falls of Neuse Road while living with host families. Their presence has lifted the unbeaten Lions (23-0) to chasing a state title.
Top-seeded Neuse Christian received a double bye in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 1A tournament and won its quarterfinal game last Saturday 75-37 over Ahoskie’s Ridgecroft School (20-5) at Neuse Christian’s gym.
In this weekend’s Final Four, Neuse Christian plays No. 4 seed The Burlington School (22-6) in the semifinals at 4 p.m. Friday at The Covenant School in Matthews. If Neuse Christian wins, the final is against the winner between two Fayetteville schools, No. 3 seed Trinity Christian (18-4) and No. 2 seed Northwood Temple (25-8), at 2 p.m. Saturday at Charlotte Latin.
For the postseason, Leite has assumed the point guard role after Albiero suffered a broken thumb on her shooting hand that ended her season. She watched Saturday’s win with a cast around her wrist and thumb.
“We made a few minor adjustments, but more than anything the girls are playing with determination,” said Shane Wilder, Neuse Christian’s fifth-year varsity coach. “We’ve always been a good defensive team. The girls really wanted to win the state title for Maria.”
In the Ridgecroft game, Leite scored 27 points, although no count was kept of assists and dazzling no-look passes. Freshman Julia Zupicich scored 16 points and junior Mack Wilder 12. DeAngelo finished with eight.
“I don’t need to score all the points,” Leite said. “We like to play unselfishly and keep everyone happy.”
In boys high school basketball, importing foreign players for academy teams has become big business across the country. But the Brazilians’ arrival at Neuse Christian was more innocent.
Albiero and Leite traveled with their Brazilian club program in summer 2015 to play U.S. AAU teams.
They met Raleigh-based Carolina Waves club coach Eric Hemming and expressed a desire to remain in the U.S. to gain college recruiting exposure.
Hemming inquired at Neuse Christian.
As an NCISAA member, transfer rules are less stringent than in the larger N.C. High School Athletic Association that includes public schools.
But as Wilder explained, it wasn’t that simple. He learned about the Brazilians from Penny Hill, the school administrator at Neuse Christian. She informed him five Brazilians had hoped to enroll in 2015-16, but she only admitted two. DeAngelo made it three this year.
“We love playing at this school,” Leite said. “Everyone has made us feel welcome. There has never been a day where we wished we were at a different school.”