Jelena Cerina said her two years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M got her ready for life in the Big 12 Conference.
"It definitely put me in a position to come here and get better," Cerina said Tuesday morning as she and her University of Oklahoma teammates were preparing to leave Norman and head to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament.
"I will never forget my two years at NEO because it got me ready for this," said Cerina, who grew up in Vrsac, Serbia.
She played on Serbia's under-20 national team that won bronze in the 2008 European Championships. Cerina also was on her country's national team when it finished second in the U19 World Championships.
She wound up in Miami by way of Chicago, thanks to a coach who had seen her play in the European and World Championships.
"He told me he could get me in a junior college," Cerina said. "He connected me with Coach Rowland."
She averaged 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds as a freshman with the Lady Norse, then bumped her numbers to 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds her sophomore year. The 2010 Dixie Woodall Inspiration Award winner, Cerina was named to the Region II all-tournament first team.
Cerina spent most of her first semester at NEO just getting used to things.
"It was a cultural shock," she said. "I was getting used to everything."
The hardest adjustment for Cerina on the floor was getting used to the speed of the American style of play – which she now prefers because of its more physical nature.
"The European style is much slower," she said. "When I came to NEO, I had to adjust myself to the speed of running up and down the court. Coach Rowland’s practices definitely got me prepared (for the next step in her career). When I came here, it was still a shock, but not quite as big because his practices got me ready for this.
"He has a similar style, so it was easier to catch up when I got here."
The 6-5 Cerina has averaged 14.0 minutes a game. She's averaging 3.9 points and 3.7 rebounds.
She had a career-best 16 points in Oklahoma's 80-71 victory against Oklahoma State on Feb. 4.
"That was great - they put me in the right position to get the ball," Cerina said.
She's raised her game since January.
Prior to the start of Big 12 play, the most playing time she had received in a game was 19 minutes.
But now, she played 31 minutes in an overtime win at Kansas, 23 against Missouri and 26 against Kansas State.
The Sooners' only senior, she was recognized following Sunday's 83-77 loss to Kansas. Rowland was on hand for that.
"She told me after the game that said she really appreciated the opportunity we gave her to come over here to learn and play basketball," Rowland said. "Not to brag on NEO or how we run the program, but we make them feel comfortable. We make our international students feel at home. We do what we can for them and make it more of a family atmosphere."
Indiana also was in the running to win the services of Cerina, but she opted for the Sooners.
"I was happy that she did pick OU because I knew what Sherri would give her besides basketball," Rowland said. "I knew she would be a mentor that would help her understand the family values and understand morals and ethics. I think it made her a better person."
She's the third former Lady Norse player to play at Oklahoma.
The late Rosalind Ross played at NEO from 1998-2000 and was a member of the Sooners' Final Four team in 2002.
Maria Villaroel played one season for the Lady Norse (2001-02) after her freshman year at Independence (Kan.) Community College, then transferred to Oklahoma.
The Sooners (19-11) have the No. 2 seed for the Big 12 Tournament.
They will face either Oklahoma State or Missouri on Thursday.
"We are really excited," Cerina said. "This is that time of year: March Madness. This is what we play for and practice for.”