Buckeyes Bonded Over Serbia Trip

Ohio State basketball players Evan Turner and Jantel Lavender were whisked out of their comfort zones when they played in the World University Games earlier this month in Belgrade, Serbia. From the food to language to the game atmospheres, little was familiar for the two basketball stars, so it helped to have a connection to home.

Traveling halfway across the world to Belgrade, Serbia, resulted in plenty of culture shock for Ohio State basketball players Jantel Lavender and Evan Turner.

From seeing a lower standard of living to dealing with the hostile nature of the patriotic home fans, there were some new experiences to be had on the pair's early July trip to the World University Games.

Even the sport of international basketball, with its wider lane and different style of play, was a bit foreign to the two Buckeye stars.

About the only things that were familiar for the pair were the local McDonald's and the presence of each other. Lavender and Turner stayed one floor apart in the same building in the athletes' village, and the pair's connection from Columbus helped them deal with being so far from home.

"I went up to his room all the time, and me and him chit-chatted and talked about how he was feeling about everything and just tried to keep each other sane," said Lavender, who returned home with a gold medal earned for the U.S. women's team. "He really made me feel better. I really felt like I had somebody from home there, so it felt really good having him there."

Turner, who dealt with an on-court transition from scorer to facilitator while putting up with the rigors of the travel and competition on the way to a bronze medal, had a similar take.

"Sometimes I might have gotten irritated here or there, but she's a real calming person," Turner said. "She's really an ideal person to talk to because she carries herself well and she's been through these situations before. She's just a good friend and genuine. She's a good person. She's an amazing, beautiful person, and I really appreciate her."

Lavender was there to support Turner and his American teammates as they faced the home Serbian squad in pool play on July 7. The United States eked out a 68-66 victory in front of a crowd of 14,000 fans, most of whom were vociferously supporting the home team.

"That was great," Turner said. "They were even mad after the game. They would come up to us in the streets and tell us we got cheated and everything and how they were going to beat us later in the week. It never got to that, but it was still a good memory to win on foreign turf."

While rooting on the United States to a win, Lavender and her teammates were the targets of abuse from the Serbian fans.

"They weren't even paying attention to the game, they were so focused on us cheering the United States," she said. "There was one whole section giving us the finger. It was crazy. I was in awe. We had to get escorted out by like 100 cops."

The American men lost to Russia in the semifinals and ended up beating Israel for the bronze medal, while Serbia beat the Russians for the gold. While on the medal stand, the verbal harassment – worse than anything Turner said he'd witnessed in college – continued on to the men's team.

"That was tough," Turner said. "That was a tough situation, when you're up there for like 30 minutes and we were getting booed every second. It's kind of frustrating, but that's how it goes.

Turner also had to deal with the fact that his team came up short of its goal of a gold medal.

"I hate losing. Nothing bothers me more," he said. "You walk out with your team, you flew across the water, but to go out there and get booed by people and just how some people looked at you, it was kind of tough. That was the toughest thing. If I ever got the opportunity, I would never lose in that type of situation again."

While in Serbia, the Americans made one trip to see a fort but eschewed other sightseeing opportunities. Because the journey was a business trip for the Americans, winning only a bronze medal while putting up with the conditions was a small consolation.

"It was a great opportunity, but I just remember being booed and not winning," Turner said. "That was the toughest thing, to tell you the truth, just going out there and being in third place."

While in Serbia, though, Turner did get a chance to hang out with fellow Big Ten players Talor Battle of Penn State and Robbie Hummel of Purdue while also being coached by Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. Turner said he and his league rivals became closer, though Battle was guilty of some trash-talking when the players discussed the upcoming season.

"Those people from New York talk so much, it's ridiculous," Turner said with a smile.

For Lavender, a veteran of international competition after stints the previous two summers with USA Basketball junior teams, the World University Games was a different kind of event than she was used to.

The past few international competitions in which the 6-4 center took part were put on by FIBA and featured only basketball, whereas the university games included athletes from numerous sports. As the games went on, the American athletes in different sports would root on each other during competition.

"We had so much more support than we usually did," Lavender said. "It was just great meeting with all of the other teams. We were all in this little village so it was like you couldn't help but get close with all of the other teams and countries. It made for a better experience."

The trip to Serbia was not an easy one for Lavender and the Americans, who needed 36 hours, she said, to traverse from Colorado to Belgrade with stops in Chicago, Germany and Italy in between. Once there, Lavender was able to take in some sights and have dinner with the parents of Aleksandra Dobranic, a native of Novi Sad, Serbia, who has signed with OSU and will be a freshman on the team next year.

Once there, she was surprised by the low standard of living in Belgrade and professed trouble with the language barrier with the natives, but she was able to make some new friends in her gold-medal winning teammates. The squad shared two bedrooms for the entire trip.

"We couldn't help but bond," she said. "The girls were great. We were just close, and that's what made us overcome the different type of coaching style and just dealing with the different coaches because the team was so close and everybody was so open to making new friends. It was just a great experience just with the girls alone."

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