(Editor's note: University of Montana athletics release)
MISSOULA -- First-year Montana Lady Griz head coach Mike Petrino went into his opening month on the job with a goal of making his roster, on the youthful side with five freshmen coming in next fall, a little older and a little more experienced.
He got a start on that checklist last week when Hannah Thurmon, who spent two years at Three Rivers College in Missouri, accepted a scholarship offer.
Now he’s added two more collegiate veterans: Lauren Mills, a 6-foot-2 center who will transfer in from Iowa State, and Nyah Morris-Nelson, a 6-foot shooting guard who spent last season at Iowa Western, a junior college in Council Bluffs.
Both are from Australia -- Mills from Hobart, Tasmania, Morris-Nelson from Gold Coast. They are the first Lady Griz to come from "Down Under." Morris-Nelson will be a junior and eligible to play immediately. Mills will have to sit out the 2020-21 season. She will then have one year of eligibility remaining.
They will be the first international scholarship players in program history. The only other Lady Griz from outside the country was Cindy Muchmore, of Mannheim, Germany, a walk-on for the 1983-84 team.
“We’re very excited about all three players we’ve added to the roster. They each bring valuable experience,” said Petrino. “I can’t thank our staff enough. This was a total team effort.”
All three committed in a 24-hour rush that turned some restless nights for Petrino into some a little more sleep-filled after he and his staff put their first stamp on the program.
“The night that Lauren committed, I had a FaceTime meeting with her and her 'mum,' as she says,” said Petrino. “They had these great questions, and at the end of it, Lauren says, ‘I’ve thought about it, and I want to come to Montana.’ It was exciting.”
And then, from another part of Australia, where both players had gone home in March and resettled to finish off their spring semesters:
“An hour later I hear from Nyah. She says, ‘I want to come to Montana.’ We had two Australians who didn’t know each other, from different parts of the country, and they committed an hour apart,” said Petrino.
“Twenty-four hours later Hannah committed. It was bam, bam, bam. It was an exciting time. All three of these kids had multiple Division I offers.”
Morris-Nelson began her journey to Missoula at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, two seasons ago, where she averaged 4.6 points and hit 37 3-pointers for a team that went 30-5 and advanced to the Elite 8 of the NJCAA national tournament. She spent last season at Iowa Western, averaging 9.4 points and 3.6 rebounds for the 19-11 Reivers and drained another 43 3-pointers, a point of emphasis for Petrino and his staff as they looked ahead.
They wanted to get older and more experienced and at the same time add some long-range snipers. He did that with Thurmon, who made 72 triples last season, and Morris-Nelson. The Lady Griz made just 144 3-pointers last winter, which ranked 269th nationally. Almost all those makes came from players who will not be back in 2020-21.
“When you graduate Taylor (Goligoski) and lose Gabi (Harrington), there is a need for 3-point shooting, and Nyah fits as a 3-point threat,” said Petrino. “She is a good-sized guard who is versatile. She can play more than one position and defend more than one position. And she brings the experience of playing college basketball for nationally-ranked programs.”
Morris-Nelson has been back home in Australia since mid-March, so she, like Thurmon, had to be recruited and sold on the Lady Griz, the university and Missoula from a distance.
“I wanted to go to a school that really wanted me and was really passionate about me. All the coaches at Montana proved that to me,” said Morris-Nelson. “I really liked how Coach Mike said his program is big on family and trusting each other. I had that at Iowa Western, and it made my time there a lot better and more enjoyable, so I wanted that.”
Morris-Nelson started 18 games last winter. She missed part of the season with torn ankle ligaments.
“I liked how the coaches spoke about the community and the way it supports Montana. Everyone is really big fans of the basketball team. And it’s always been my dream to go to March Madness,” she said.
Mills has already been there. She was in her second year at Iowa State when the Cyclones went 26-9 in 2018-19 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Iowa State ended this past season with a 57-56 home win over No. 2 Baylor before things were shut down prior to the start of the Big 12 tournament. Another trip to the NCAA tournament was a lock.
The win over the Bears in Iowa State’s regular-season finale drew a crowd of 10,068 to Hilton Coliseum, which isn’t unusual for a fan base that is one of the most supportive in the nation.
Dahlberg Arena doesn’t hold that many, but Montana has led the Big Sky Conference in attendance every year the NCAA has been keeping track. That meant something to Mills.
“That was definitely something I was looking for. I have had a great experience with people who love women’s basketball. I think that is what makes the college experience special,” Mills said. “From what I’ve seen about the team and Missoula, I couldn’t be more excited to get the chance to play in front of the Lady Griz fan base and get the chance to meet them in the community.”
Mills attended the University of Tasmania in the fall of 2017 before joining the Cyclones for the 2018 spring semester. She played the last two seasons.
“The reason I decided to leave Iowa State was to seek further development for myself as a basketball player and to get a playing opportunity,” said Mills. “Iowa State has a great program and I enjoyed my time there. The next step for me is to put everything I have learned into play. I’m so excited that I get to do that as a Lady Griz.”
Mills played in 13 games for Iowa State the last two years, totaling 13 points and six rebounds. The game output may have been limited, but nothing else was. That’s what excites Petrino -- the other 98 percent of the time, when Mills was going up in practice against players who make Iowa State a top-25 program year after year.
“She brings the experience of going against a nationally-ranked team in practice every day the last two years,” said Petrino. “She’s looking for a chance to have more of an impact. “All of these players address a need and make us more balanced age-wise. We feel we have three pieces that meet our criteria.”
It also helped to have an insider on the Iowa State coaching staff, someone who could give some insight to a name in the transfer portal.
Bill Fennelly took over the Iowa State program in the mid-90s. The Cyclones had won just 22 games the previous four seasons before he arrived from Toledo. By his third year, Iowa State was winning 25 games. His son, Billy, has been an assistant coach on the team the last eight years. Petrino met both coaches a decade ago and has stayed in touch ever since.
“They are great people, I respect them a lot," said Petrino. "I think Bill Fennelly and Robin (Selvig) are similar in a lot of ways. Both built programs with great fan bases that are beloved in their community.
“Billy and I communicate multiple times every month, just to bounce ideas off each other. When we saw Lauren’s name in the portal, I reached out. They said she’s a great kid.”
That insight, of a coach she hadn’t met, was just as important to Mills, who used her coaches in the same way Petrino had, to determine if the fit would be right.
“I had a lot of interest in the transfer portal, and the feedback I received from the coaching staff about Coach Petrino was certainly appreciated,” said Mills. “They had great things to say."
“Ultimately it was when I got to know Coach Petrino and the coaching staff that I was able to form those connections myself and make a decision," she continued. "I was able to make good connections with the coaching staff and I felt comfortable straight away. We had a lot of conversations about their plans for the future and the program they are building, and immediately I wanted to be a part of it.”
Like Morris-Nelson, Mills committed to Montana without ever having stepped foot on campus. But that’s not a first. She did the same thing at Iowa State.
“I have actually been home in Australia each time I have been recruited and didn’t get a chance to visit Iowa State either,” she said. “The coaching staff was really good in providing me with all the information I could have needed. After getting to know them, I was able to put a lot of trust in them and feel confident about my decision to commit without visiting the school. Of course I can’t wait until I can get there and start exploring.”