When UConn called, it was game on for Croatian recruit Nika Muhl

UConn recruit Nika Muhl made her first trip to the U.S. in February and met San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as part of the "Basketball Without Borders" program. Photo courtesy of the Muhl family

Nika Muhl stared at the email. Was this a prank? Or was this real?

The subject line read, "Greetings from UConn", and that was intriguing enough for Muhl, a 5-foot-10 point guard from the Croatian capital of Zagreb. But then she opened the correspondence, and it left Muhl and her parents stunned.

This was no joke.

Chris Dailey, Connecticut's associate head coach, wanted to know if Muhl would be interested in playing for the Huskies. And even though 4,170 miles and six time zones separate Zagreb from Storrs, Connecticut, Muhl knew all about coach Geno Auriemma's program and its 11 national championships.

"I was speechless," Muhl said of the email she received in January. "My mom [Roberta] cried. I cried, oh yeah, I cried. My dad [Darko] was speechless. We all just sat in silence in our living room for five minutes."

The timing of the email was a bit odd for Muhl because she had just figured out her four finalists for college and was about to post it on Twitter. But, once Muhl recovered from the shock, she realized she needed to set one more plate at the table.

Her "final four" became her final five, and she posted the news on Jan. 27: Louisville, Ohio State, Oregon, South Florida and ... UConn.

Muhl at that time fully intended to visit all five universities before choosing her collegiate home. But in the end, Muhl committed to UConn on April 8 before even making it to Storrs.

The Huskies now have two players committed to them for the class of 2020: Muhl and Paige Bueckers, a 5-11 guard from Hopkins High (Minnetonka, Minnesota).

Bueckers, the No. 1 player in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 recruiting rankings for the class of 2020, scrimmaged against Muhl earlier this month in Tampa, Florida, where they were two of the 34 girls invited to the "Next Generation Showcase" event held in conjunction with the Women's Final Four.

Of course, at the time of those scrimmages, Bueckers had no idea Muhl was a couple of days away from committing to UConn, and thus the two young stars never formally met.

Even so, Bueckers said she had "no problem" with another guard joining the Huskies for 2020.

"I consider myself a combo guard," Bueckers said. "And from what I've heard, [Muhl] is unselfish and a pass-first point guard who will put the team first. I'm looking forward to getting to know her."

Added Muhl: "[Bueckers] is a great player. It's going to be fun. I think we are going to make each other better. Hopefully, we can win championships together."

Basketball destiny

Muhl didn't start playing basketball until age 12. Before that, she swam and played volleyball, handball and tennis.

"She always had huge energy since the day she was born," Darko said. "But nothing ignited a spark in her like basketball."

Darko and Roberta had both played basketball, but their careers were cut short by injury.

"When they got injured, it broke their hearts," Muhl said of her parents. "They didn't want me to play basketball because of that, but I was just too stubborn.

"When I finally tried basketball, I stopped everything else. Basketball was the most exciting and competitive sport for me."

Muhl, who turned 18 on April 9, has a younger sister who is also a budding star. Hana, 15, is a 5-8 point guard who was recently named the MVP of the U17 Women's Adriatic Basketball Association (WABA).

Hana -- known as "Baby Muhl" on Twitter -- probably will have her choice of numerous colleges soon, but for now the focus is on her big sister.

Nika Muhl, who plays for Tresnjevka's women's team in the WABA, averaged 11.7 points in 33 minutes per game this past season. She ranked first in the league in steals (3.7), first in assists (6.2) and seventh in rebounds (7.7).

Rachel Galligan, a former assistant coach at Ball State and Eastern Illinois and now the owner of a service called Go Global Recruiting, has seen Nika Muhl play several times.

The first time was at the U18 European Championships in Italy last August.

"She jumped out at me immediately," Galligan said. "I thought she was a killer. She wanted the ball in her hands. Your eyes are drawn to her because of her confidence, her presence and the way she carries herself."

Connecticut has had only one previous European player -- Svetlana Abrosimova, a Russian who became a three-time All-American for the Huskies from 1997 to 2001.

But there have been published reports that UConn could add Anna Makurat -- an 18-year-old guard from Poland -- to their 2019 recruiting class.

Regardless, Muhl remains committed, and Galligan sees her as a good fit.

"I'm not surprised UConn likes her," Galligan said. "She has an edge to her that's hard to find. Her grit sets her apart."

Indeed, Croatia didn't medal in that 16-nation event but still finished a respectable 5-2, and a lot of that had to do with Muhl.

Less than a month after that tournament, Muhl was contacted by 45 to 50 American universities. And just a few months after that, she received her life-altering email.

Coming to America

Muhl speaks three languages. In order of her fluency, it's Croatian, English and German.

Her English is excellent as it is a mandatory course in Croatian schools. She supplements the English she learns in school by watching YouTube and Netflix -- Maya Moore highlights and the "Narcos" drama series are among her favorites.

She made her first trip to the U.S. two months ago. She took a 90-minute flight to Frankfurt, Germany, and then seven hours to Charlotte, North Carolina, as one of 24 girls invited to the NBA's 2019 All-Star Game.

Muhl was there as part of the NBA's "Basketball Without Borders" program, and she was the only player from Croatia on the list.

"Everything is 10 times bigger than in Croatia," Muhl said when asked about her impressions of the U.S. "The food, the streets, the cars -- everything is bigger."

Before Muhl traveled to Tampa in early April, she experienced her own version of March Madness as coaches from four colleges visited her home in Zagreb during that crazy-busy month.

Auriemma was the first to arrive, and he took the long trip in stride.

"He acted like it was no big deal to come -- 'just an ocean away,' " Muhl said. "But it was a big honor for us. I appreciate all the coaches that came. It showed how interested they were in me."

At that point, Auriemma had seen Muhl play only on video, but he told her that he liked how she made her teammates better with unselfish play.

Auriemma was followed to the Muhl home by Oregon assistant Xavi Lopez, South Florida head coach Jose Fernandez and associate head coach Michele Woods-Baxter, and Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff and associate head coach Patrick Klein. Louisville did not make the trip.

"We had four visits in four days," Muhl said. "My dad was cooking 24/7. My mom tells him how good he cooks so that's why he does it. That's her plan, you know, sneaky!"

Muhl's plan regarding college was to take her time with her decision, but once she saw UConn play at the Women's Final Four in Tampa, it was game over for the Huskies' recruiting competition.

That week was also the first time Auriemma watched Muhl play live, and the recruiting intensified from there.

Three days after watching UConn lose to Notre Dame in the national semifinals, Muhl tweeted her decision. The Huskies, even in defeat, had impressed her with their style of play.

She hopes to finally visit Storrs in July or August, but when she arrives for good in 2020, the Huskies will be getting a great prospect, according to Galligan.

"She has great vision and court awareness," Galligan said. "Her handle is impressive. She does a lot with side steps and Eurosteps. She can knock down an open 3, but where she is elite is how she gets to the rim and creates for herself or a teammate.

"When she gets to the open floor, it's game over."