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Nov. 23, 1999

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – You don’t have to be a basketball coach to recognize Elena Kravchenko‘s potential. Virginia’s junior center stands 6-10, and she is believed to be the tallest Division I player in the nation. Kravchenko’s height – and a good dose of athleticism – have made Kravchenko one of the players to watch in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Kravchenko is a native of Minsk, Belarus, who came to the United States three years ago. She attended high school for one year at Plymouth (Pa.) White Marsh High, and then signed a scholarship offer from Virginia.

When Kravchenko arrived in Charlottesville in the fall of 1997, she was tall and coordinated, but she was raw.

“She has improved a boatload over the past two years,” noted Cavalier coach Debbie Ryan. “For one thing, she is so much stronger – when she first came she couldn’t do a push up. She has also improved her conditioning tremendously.

“Elena is much more comfortable with our offense. She has always been able to shoot and pass the ball extremely well. Elena is just naturally very deft offensively. She is also tough to guard because she is so tall and she has great hands. Now that she has a better understanding of our offense, and her footwork is phenomenal.”

As a freshman, Kravchenko played in 23 games, averaging 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds per contest. In 1998-99, she took a big stride forward. Kravchenko appeared in 29 games, averaging 10.0 minutes of court time per contest. For the year, she delivered 4.6 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.

Those offensive numbers will certainly grow this winter, now that Cavalier post standout Demya Walker has graduated. Kravchenko has confidence in her ability to fill in for Walker on the offensive end, but the other end is another story.

“Everybody has space to improve in every area, but the main thing I want to do now is to pick up my defense,” Kravchenko said. “I’m not perfect on offense, but for me offense has always been more natural and easy. Playing defense has always taken more effort, and that’s why I’m trying to emphasize that.”

In addition to the transition Kravchenko has made on the basketball court, she has also made a transition off the court. She is a long, long way from her home in Belarus.

“I only get to see my family once a year, and I don’t get to talk to them much on the telephone, so that’s hard. It’s also hard that I don’t get to talk to my old friends. I really miss them,” Kravchenko said.

While Kravchenko misses her childhood friends, she has developed a new set of friends in Charlottesville.

“It took some time to adjust, but it wasn’t hard,” she said. “When you move to a different culture, it’s always an adjustment. The people are nice, but they have a little bit of a different perspective.

“The good part is that I have my team. That gives you 15 people you are in touch with right away.”

In two years, Kravchenko will graduate and leave her 15 friends behind. She wants to continue playing basketball on the professional level, hopefully in the WNBA. Could this once-gangly girl from Belarus eventually improve enough to reach her goal?

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Ryan said. “She has a ways to go, but I’ve always thought that taller players develop a little slower. I don’t think players who are Elena’s size get comfortable with their body until a few years later. It takes just a little longer for them to get there.

“The other thing with Elena is that she needs to add strength and weight if she wants to play on that level.”

— Doug Herakovich

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