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AN ODYSSEY: Eleanna Christinaki excelling on court, in classroom

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One minute separated Eleanna Christinaki from making history.

With time running out in Florida’s 93-79 win over UCF on Dec. 30, the freshman guard from Athens, Greece, was slowly closing in on a career milestone.

Needing only one rebound and one assist to become just the third Florida women’s basketball player to record a triple-double, she grabbed the Gators’ last board.

But there would be no assist and no triple double.

Her performance would, however, be a sign. And not just a sign of the success that was to come for her and her team, which faces Albany in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at noon.

It was a sign of who Christinaki is as a person, exhibiting balance both on and off the court with a desire to bring out the best in the people around her.

"I wanted to make my school be really good," Eleanna said. "Like, getting higher. I didn’t want to go into UConn and be the first without training so much."

And after just one season, she’s already helped lead the her team’s resurgence in the Southeastern Conference. But with three years left in Gainesville, there’s ample opportunity for her to leave an even larger mark on the program.

"You make history," she said. "That’s the point."

• • •

Eleanna’s athletic career didn’t begin on the hardwood.

As the daughter of a soccer coach, she grew up playing the sport her dad knew best. But that changed abruptly when Eleanna was about 13 years old.

"Because I was tall, my father one day just told me, ‘No, you’re gonna start playing basketball,’" she said. "I just started, and I really liked it, and then I forgot my soccer skills."

Eleanna quickly discovered that her abilities as a basketball player were well beyond what her abilities as a soccer player ever were.

By the time she was 14 years old — only a year after taking up the sport — Eleanna was already playing in the Greek National System. And at 18, the six-foot guard became the second-youngest player to ever make the Greek Senior National Team.

But her success didn’t just culminate in promotions or individual accolades, which included being named the Top Young Player in Greece twice.

It led to scholarship offers.

It led to interest from professional teams in Europe, which offered her contracts out of high school.

But for Eleanna, a college diploma was essential. So when Florida assistant coach Murriel Page contacted her, she listened.

The school was an ideal fit for her playing style, boasted a respectable academic reputation and allowed her to make an immediate impact by offering her the opportunity to play right away.

In April 2015, Eleanna and her parents made the near-6,000-mile trip from Athens to Gainesville.

"Before I came, I tried to learn a lot of things about (Florida)," Eleanna said.

But despite all she knew about UF beforehand, it was the official visit — which turned out to be her only visit — that had the greatest impact on her.

"The first day I just met the team and met the coaches, and I feel that I would fit in this team," Eleanna said. "I just feel it. Something inside me told me that this is the place."

• • •

Only seven months after enrolling at UF, Eleanna has taken to calling her teammates and coaches her "American family."

But sometimes she can’t escape the fact that her real one is half a world away.

"I miss my family so much," she said. "I’m just trying to say every day to my parents if they can find time to come and watch me here."

In addition to missing her parents and brother, she also misses her homeland’s food — but only to an extent.

While she has yet to try a gyro in Gainesville, she’s embraced some unhealthy American favorites.

"All the bad things," she said of her affinity for American cuisine. "Burgers and all that’s really bad. I like it."

While the food has been easy to adjust to, other facets of her college experience have not been.

"I don’t think I could go to Greece and take classes and play basketball and everything else," said Bill Ferrara, the team’s guards coach.

With time, Eleanna started to adjust both on and off the court.

In her first semester as a UF student, the exploratory social and behavioral sciences major earned a 3.7 GPA.

"I didn’t know so good English, and it was hard for me," she said. "But with a lot of tutoring hours and a lot of study — I study a lot — it wasn’t so hard."

Brooke Copeland, a sophomore guard and one of Eleanna’s best friends on the team, has seen her struggle with the language barrier in her school work.

"She’s so, so smart," Copeland said, "but taking her thoughts in Greek and interpreting it into English and making sense is somewhat difficult."

While improving her English for the sake of grades may have been difficult, it didn’t present as much of a challenge on the basketball court.

"The amount of basketball terminology that she picks up every day is unbelievable," Ferrara said.

But the words she learns aren’t limited to basketball terms.

After coach Amanda Butler said "Okie dokie" in practice once, the phrase stuck with Eleanna.

She soon added it to her expanding vocabulary, using it in place of "yes" at every opportunity.

Another favorite is "deliberate," which Butler once said directly to Eleanna.

"Everybody start laughing because I didn’t know what that means," she said.

"But now it’s my word. Like, I say it, ‘Coach, I will do deliberate.’ I know this word."

While Eleanna still isn’t fully comfortable with English, Gainesville is still starting to feel like a second home.

"She feels like they’re a family there," said Mariella Fasoula, a center for Boston College who played with Eleanna in the Greek National System for almost five years before the two of them went to college. "She loves being there and playing in the team."

Butler said that Eleanna has meshed with the team so well because of her ability to adapt.

"(It’s) her ability to adjust to a different lifestyle, a different country, a different way of playing basketball," Butler said. "A different set of teammates, a different set of coaches and to try to adapt to those groups in a way where she’s not just blending in, but where she’s adding to that group in a positive manner."

But even though she’s been embraced by her team and has started to rub off on them, Eleanna’s journey thus far has been challenging. Through it all, though, she’s maintained an optimistic attitude.

"Every new beginning is hard. And especially for an international who doesn’t know so good the language," she said.

"But you know, it’s getting better."

• • •

Before this season, UF’s women’s basketball team hadn’t won 20 games in a regular season since 2008-09.

The Gators were coming off a 13-17 season, the worst mark for the program since 2006-07.

But ever since they upset then-No. 6 Florida State in their second game of the season, the Gators have looked nothing like the group the media projected would finish 12th out of 14 teams at Southeastern Conference Media Day.

"When we won the Florida State game, I was really, really happy for that," Eleanna said. "I didn’t know a lot about this — enemy things."

Eleanna said the November win was her favorite moment during her time in America.

Four months later, the Gators are heading to the NCAA Tournament with 22 wins.

And while the FSU game was a pivotal moment in the season, Eleanna has been a pivotal part of the team’s success.

She leads UF in assists with 102 — 31 more than her closest teammate — and is second in scoring, averaging 10.6 points per game. She’s also the top-rebounding guard on the team, averaging 3.2 per game.

She’s been named SEC Freshman Player of the Week three times — one award away from matching former WNBA player Sha Brooks for the most all-time in a Gators’ uniform.

"She’s one of the top-five players in Europe — there was definitely an expectation of immediate impact," Ferrara said.

But if you ask Eleanna, she probably doesn’t know how many times she’s won SEC Freshman of the Week or that she’s leading the team in assists.

All she knows is that the team is winning.

In fact, her commitment to keeping the spotlight on the team rather than on herself is so great that she frequently refuses to acknowledge her own accomplishments.

"I don’t think that I’m successful, first of all," she said. "I’m really happy that I get these awards because that means that the team is winning and that’s what we want."

Fasoula, Eleanna’s former teammate from Greece, says the key to Eleanna’s success as a basketball player is her ability to perform many different functions.

"I feel like she is very versatile. She has a great drive, a great shot and is not a selfish player," she said.

But Haley Lorenzen, a UF sophomore forward, says that while Eleanna’s talent is undeniable, it’s her team-first attitude that stands out the most.

"She hugs you when she thinks you’re going to go for a chest bump," Lorenzen said.

And yes, there have been times when Eleanna commits a turnover or takes an ill-advised shot that you’re reminded she’s still a freshman.

But there have also been times when she makes a no-look pass or snatches a rebound like a post player that you’re amazed she still has three years to go.

"She hasn’t even scratched the surface of what she’s going to become," Ferrara said.

• • •

Before coming to UF, Eleanna faced many uncertainties. And in some ways, nothing has changed.

"Every day I’m waking up and I want to study something else," she said.

She’s taken classes ranging from sociology to biology to journalism, with no clear direction so far.

Eleanna is still unsure about her future in basketball.

As the first Greek player to suit up for the Florida women’s basketball team, she could return to Europe to play professionally. She could also stay in the U.S. and play in the WNBA if she continues on her current trajectory. Or she could — however unlikely — give up basketball all together.

But she doesn’t have the answers.

And she isn’t thinking about it.

"I’m going step by step," she said. "Now we have this game, I’m worried about this game."

Her one-step-at-a-time attitude has paid dividends in the past.

It landed her college scholarships.

It landed her offers to play professionally.

It landed her a place on the All-SEC Freshman Team.

But her ultimate goal is still to make history — whether at UF or beyond.

"I’m working every day that same way — really hard," she said. "So you never know what’s gonna happen after my four years here."

Contact Ethan Bauer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ebaueri