Zias’ senior center catching on

Zia senior Riikka Lohtenen (right) guards sophomore post Brittney Gillespie during Thursday’s basketball practice. Lohtenen, originally from Finland, scored a career-high 17 points in Tuesday’s 87-61 season-opening win at Western New Mexico.

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

PORTALES — In Riikka Lehtonen’s home city of Turku, Finland, it’s the ice where most star athletes can be seen. One game into the Eastern New Mexico University women’s basketball season, the Zias post could be primed to be a star on the hardwood.

The Zias got off to a solid start Tuesday with an 87-61 victory over Western New Mexico at Silver City and Lehtonen, who transferred to ENMU last year from Kilgore College in Texas, got off to a solid start with a career-high 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

It was a noticeable start for Lohtenen, a 6-foot post who only reached double figures once during her junior season.

“I’m more comfortable,” Lehtonen said before Thursday’s practice. “I know what the coach wants. He wants me to be physical and grab some boards, play defense, be a leader.”

In high school, being a basketball player was unusual enough in Finland, where hockey takes most of the headlines. Lehtonen, who went to the same high school at Montreal Canadiens star Saku Koivu, said that Finland high schools do not offer basketball, and the sport is instead played in clubs.

“In Finland, basketball doesn’t get much attention,” Lohtenen said. “My coach in Finland really wanted me to (go to the U.S.).”

And that’s what she did, playing her senior season at Centerville High School in Ohio. She played two seasons at Kilgore, and took an opportunity to stay in the Southwest when Zias coach Dan Buzard recruited her.

“I knew she was a strong player inside, had a good outside touch,” Buzard said. “For her size, she really runs well. Those are pretty good intangibles to have.”

With Buzard missing last season while recovering from a brain tumor, Lehtonen averaged only 4.5 points a game and the Zias lost a tie-breaker for the South’s Division’s final berth in the Lone Star Conference tournament.

Now, Buzard is hopeful that Lohtenen has turned the corner and the team will follow suit.

“Riikka came back with a new attitude this year on her game,” Buzard said. “She developed some moves, her shooting touch from the outside is better and her game inside is better.”

The first piece of evidence came Tuesday, as she was one of four Zias in double figures.

“I think that’s something she could do every night if we give her the opportunity,” Buzard said. “She posted up strong, she scored when we needed.

“We’ve got good offensive players and our kids can really run the floor. Our defense needs to get better. We can always put up points.”

Though Lohtenen may not always put up the most impressive numbers for ENMU — teammate Tiana Bryant posted a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds in the win — Lohtenen’s presence could make the difference in how the Zias play this year. If Lohtenen and Bryant are playing well, Buzard can use junior Elizabeth Richards anywhere on the court and create numerous matchup problems.

“E’s playing everywhere we need her to play,” Buzard said of Richards. “Tiana and Riikka are primarily playing the post, but we’ve got good backups with Rochelle Vance and Brittney Gillespie. We just need to keep them out of foul trouble.”