When the 2012-13 season ended, Legacy girls basketball coach Tiffany Richardson knew she would have five returnees and hoped the Longhorns could quickly bounce back from a down year.
Months later, the eighth-year coach had a secret weapon fall into her lap.
Carolina Rahkonen, an exchange student from Finland, walked up to Richardson early in the school year in the coach’s physical education class and said two words:
She’s spent the entire season proving it.
Rahkonen, who leads Legacy in scoring at 16.1 points per game, helped the Longhorns go from missing the playoffs last year to the Southwest League’s No. 3 seed this season. Legacy (16-9) will open the postseason at Durango (17-7) in the Sunset Region quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. today.
“I have some of my basketball girls in that class, and we were picking teams,” Richardson said. “She comes up to me and says ‘I play.’ We’re like, ‘All right. Sure.’
On Rahkonen’s first offensive play of the pickup game, she went up against Legacy senior post Markeshia Evans, the team’s best shot-blocker.
“She pump-fakes her, gets her into the air and just takes her to the basket,” Richardson said. “Everyone on the team just stopped.”
It was nothing new for Rahkonen, who played club basketball in Finland for 10 years.
“I like going to the basket. I’m not afraid,” said Rahkonen, who also is a 3-point shooting threat. Rahkonen has made 27 of 55 shots (49 percent) from beyond the arc.
Not bad for someone who just more than a year ago wasn’t considering studying in the United States.
“I never planned to go,” Rahkonen said. “I thought I couldn’t leave Finland for a year. My sister was here last year. I visited my sister this time last year, and I thought about it. I came to the school and saw the gym, and I wanted to play here. I like Las Vegas.”
After the early showing in physical education class, Rahkonen’s teammates quickly welcomed her.
“Once they knew she was a hooper, she was the first to be picked in pickup games,” Richardson said.
The 5-foot-10-inch wing has shown opponents a few things, too.
She’s scored 20 or more points in a game six times, including two 30-point efforts, though her scoring average dropped slightly in Legacy’s second round of league play.
“She’s (facing) a lot more box-and-ones and triangle-and-two (defenses),” Richardson said. “They’re preparing for her now. We have to move her around in places that maybe she’s not used to playing.
“She never stops moving. She’ll run one side, and if she doesn’t get the ball, she’ll run the other side. Whoever is guarding her is going to be dog-tired by the end of the game because she’s going to run them ragged.”
While learning about American customs, Rahkonen also has taught her teammates a few things.
Rahkonen has told her teammates that playing basketball in Finland is a privilege. Because of that, the players work hard and constantly practice hard.
“She’s had a couple conversations with a couple of our players about working hard all the time,” Richardson said. “She loves the game. Her work ethic is something I’m not used to, and she has rubbed off on them.”
Rahkonen, who ran cross country for Legacy in the fall and plans to play club basketball in the spring, will return to Finland in mid-June, but she’s getting a special treat this week.
Her family made the trip from Finland, arriving Saturday, and will see her play in the postseason, adding to what Rahkonen said has been a better experience than she imagined.
“I’ve made a lot of friends,” she said. “I love my team. I feel really close to them. I’ve got American friends in all of my classes and I’m friends with other exchange students.
“I’m so happy.”
Contact reporter Bartt Davis at email@example.com or (702) 387-5230.