- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Leaving school early for the pros is no big deal for the men at Kentucky or Duke.

It is far more unique on the women’s side, and that is one of the reasons Minnesota sophomore center Amanda Zahui B. wore a big smile on her face as she explained her decision Tuesday.

The Big Ten player of the year declared for the WNBA draft on Monday. In doing so, she became the rare woman to turn down college to perhaps become the top pick in the WNBA and earn the big money that comes with playing overseas.

“I like to be unique. I like to do my own thing,” Zahui said while standing on the court at Williams Arena one last time. “Take small things from different players I look up to and make it my own road.”

No one has traveled a path quite like hers. Zahui was born in Sweden and came to Minnesota for college, only to sit out her first season on campus while she got acclimated. She exploded in her second season on the court for the Golden Gophers, averaging 18.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.1 blocks to carry the load after star guard Rachel Banham was lost for the season with a knee injury.

She cemented her place as one of this year’s best prospects during a staggering week in February when she had 39 points and 29 rebounds in a win over Iowa and followed it up with 27 points and 27 boards while playing all 50 minutes of a double-overtime victory over Michigan.

Because Zahui will turn 22 during the calendar year of the WNBA draft, she is eligible to turn pro. Candace Parker left Tennessee after her junior season and was the No. 1 pick in the draft in 2008. Epiphanny Prince also left Rutgers after her junior year, but she wasn’t allowed to enter the draft that year because she didn’t meet the requirements.

It’s not just the WNBA draft that is pulling Zahui from a team that would have been expected to contend for the Final Four next season with her in the paint and Banham back from her knee injury. There is also real money to be made playing overseas, where most WNBA players go for big checks.

“In women’s basketball, that is where most of the money is,” Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said. “She will make quite a bit of money, projection-wise, right away. She’s earned the right to be able to do that. For females, the opportunities aren’t as great as males in basketball. So she wants to capitalize on that while she’s hot and that’s certainly understandable.”

Her upbringing in Sweden will also make the transition back to Europe a little easier and Zahui said that did factor in her decision to leave after just two seasons with the Gophers.

“I’m really excited to go back to Europe and play,” she said. “There’s some great leagues, great teams. The best players are out there when they’re not playing in the WNBA. It’s just really exciting. I’ve been growing up watching those players for their national teams, club teams. So I’m really excited for that.”

The Gophers will have to regroup quickly to try to make up for her loss. She is the sixth player to leave the program since Stollings took over past year, with five transferring out. Stollings said she was supportive of all of those decisions.

“It’s easy to lose sight that we’ve been here about a year and there was quite a bit of change of culture and progression of the program that needed to take place,” Stollings said. “We’re just in the infancy of that at this point.”

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