The food may not be as good in America as it is in Croatia, but Inja Butina has a taste for standing out on the court no matter the location.
The junior from Zagreb, Croatia came to South Orange to be a part of the 2017-18 Pirate roster, but her first time in the United States came on Kansas soil.
“I didn’t know what to expect, I mean, out of all states, Kansas?,” Butina said with a smile. “But I loved the people, and I loved it there.”
Butina ended up in Hutchinson, Kan. after being recruited by Hutchinson Community College in 2015. Butina played two seasons there and was highly successful. She led her Blue Dragon team to a 33-2 record and the No. 4 seed in the NJCAA Tournament as a sophomore, and over her two seasons averaged 10.3 points, 6.7 assists and 2.9 steals per game in 66 contests.
For Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella, Butina transitioning that type of production to college was at one point a concern. When she first came to South Orange, she was not in the shape Bozzella saw of her at Kansas.
“When she got here, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what happened?,’ Bozzella said. “She was grossly out of shape; she had not done anything in months. She always said to us, ‘Coach don’t worry, I’ll be ready, I’ll be ready,’ and to her credit, she was. She’s really developed into a kid that you can count on each and every day.”
Butina is Bozzella’s starting point guard, and when she hits the court, she takes a commanding presence. Her trust in her teammates shows in her unselfish play, and her confidence shows in her hustle.
Ever since she was a kid, Butina could not stand still. She loved being active and first got involved with soccer and handball in Croatia, but those sports never stuck.
“My mom did not want me to play soccer because it’s too manly, and there were no clubs for girls for handball,” Butina said. “I had to do something, so I tried basketball. And we actually played dodgeball, so I liked it, it was not basketball. That was in first grade.”
Eventually joining the club team in her hometown of Zagreb, Butina’s play was recognized as she was invited to play on Croatia’s national team. She started in an under-14 national tournament, and then went on to play with both the under-16 and under-18 national teams.
There, she contributed by scoring 14.3 points per game over nine contests at the 2013 FIBA European U18 Championship.
But the game of basketball in Croatia is as different in America as goulash and brudet is to burgers and pizza.
“It’s a different basketball [game], that’s for sure,” Butina said. “Here, it’s more, I would say, a physical game, and back there it’s more like a practical game. It’s about plays and more about thinking, here’s it’s about speed, strength. That’s a huge difference.”
While Butina has not yet acquired a taste for pizza or burgers, and probably never will, she has adjusted to the American game with her aggression and motivation. Her averages of 8.0 points, 2.1 rebounds and a team-leading 4.1 assists and 2.0 steals per contest this season have been staples of each game at Seton Hall. Even more so, Butina brings a reliability from three-point range, shooting 51.6 percent from distance and averaging 1.4 threes per game.
“Just how hard she worked when she got here,” Bozzella said on what stood out. “She put in extra time, she was willing to accept coaching and getting better and adjusting, and she was great about it.”
When asked what the first word was that came to mind when thinking about Butina, Bozzella answered without hesitation, “toughness.” That aspect of Butina’s game was personified on Dec. 8, when Butina broke her nose in a game against Rutgers. While Butina sat out the next two games against Boston College and then-No. 11 UCLA, she returned on Dec. 21 against Fairfield to record 10 points and six assists in an 80-61 victory, all with a mask on her face that stayed there for a few games as she healed.
Butina’s first impression of the Big East was that the players were physical and strong, and she makes herself stand out with her aggressiveness in cutting passing lanes and turning steals into points. Her season-high for steals this season is six in a 65-56 win over Providence on Jan. 26, a game where Seton Hall recorded 29 points off turnovers.
Cutting into those lanes and getting the ball to her teammates is what allows Butina to set the pace on the court, and what she likes most about being a point guard.
“I just run the team, just the command and being in charge of everyone, the role that everyone expects for me to lead the team,” Butina said. “That’s just something to be grateful [for], to be the coach of the court and to know that coaches complimenting me to let me do their thing.”
This role allows Butina to be a leader on the court and Bozzella saw that from the first time he saw her in junior college.
“It was her leadership qualities and her ability to lead the team, her unselfishness,” Bozzella said. “She’s tremendous. A super tough kid.”
While her teammates may make a joke here and there as Butina continues to learn English, her communication and transition on the court has improved dramatically. Butina has worked well alongside guards Kaela Hilaire and Nicole Jimenez, giving Bozzella a strong point guard rotation.
Butina misses her family while in America, especially her mom’s cooking, but she has embraced her time at Seton Hall as a player who takes command. Butina’s own cooking helps her bridge the gap to her home of Zagreb, Croatia, and the work she has put in at Seton Hall shows her sacrifices can be worth it.
For now, she embraces her time as a Pirate, food and all.
“I think Inja has been a tremendous impact to the team,” Bozzella said. “She is one of the hardest working people that I have coached, she has acclimated herself well to being a Division I Big East player. She comes with a lot of international experience, so a lot of things don’t faze her. I never once questioned her effort, I never once questioned her desire, and she’s developing into a leader each and every day.”
Elizabeth Swinton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eswint22.