Holy Land native finds hoops nirvana at U.C. Davis

For six years, she played for high-level amateur teams in Jerusalem, Emek Yizrael and Tel Aviv. Her signature moment came in the 2008 Division 3 championship game, when she led Emek Yizrael to the title by erupting for 35 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

She has been a member of Israeli youth national teams since she was 14 — once recording 45 points and 35 rebounds in a seven-game stretch during the 2010 under-20 European championships.

Oh, and she served two years in the Israeli army.

U.C. Davis forward Idit Oryon dribbles past a Pepperdine defender. photo/courtesy of u.c. davis-wayne tilcock, davis enterprise

Idit Oryon’s path to becoming a Division 1 women’s basketball player is a little different from the everyday collegiate athlete. But the 6-foot junior has become a big contributor for the U.C. Davis women’s basketball team this season.

And how does someone like Oryon, 22, who grew up in Jerusalem, end up in Yolo County?

“My sister [Inbar] played for Stony Brook [University in New York] and had a really positive experience there, and also a few of my friends from the national team were considering the possibility of playing and going to school in the U.S., and so I naturally became curious about that possibility as well,” Oryon said. “I started sending out emails and tapes of my playing in European championships to coaches around the country, and among the responses I got was U.C. Davis. I decided to come here mostly because of the staff. They made a really good impression on me right from the start.”

A good first impression is important, especially for someone coming from another part of the world. But her feelings had to go beyond that, and they did.

“I love Davis. I love how peaceful and relaxed it is, and how nice and welcoming the people are,” said Oryon, who is majoring in political science. “My first impression was that the campus is really beautiful and I liked the downtown area. The weather reminded me of Jerusalem.”

Idit Oryon

Though the weather may bring back memories of home, there isn’t much else that is similar between Davis and Jerusalem.

“There are a lot of cultural differences, but everyone around me was really understanding and helped me out,” she said of the challenges she faced in making such a move. “The biggest thing was probably the language and being confident communicating what I want or feel to my coaches and teammates. But with the help of everyone, I think I picked everything up pretty fast.”

It is apparent that many obstacles Oryon faced when she first arrived on campus in 2010 have been put in the rearview mirror. The forward started the first five games of the season and is now one of the team’s top bench players, averaging nearly 19 minutes of playing time per 40-minute game. Through 14 games, she was averaging just 4.6 points per game, but was third on the team in 3-pointers made with 14.

“I really had to adjust to the physical style of play here and how intense playing D-1 basketball is, but I feel really confident about my personal growth and where the team and I will be by the end of the season,” Oryon said. She noted that the team is “very young” but “talented” this season, with eight freshmen on the 14-woman roster.

Oryon’s favorite moment as a member of the Aggies came in the first game of her sophomore season in 2011, even though she played only nine minutes. The game was against the University of Washington, a high-caliber, Pac-10 team, and it was on the road.

Avigiel Cohen

“We were down 12 points in the second half and made a huge comeback,” she recalled. “Together we made a lot of defensive stops. We were all so happy when we won and celebrated on the court.”

Oryon was in the Israeli army from 2008 to 2010 before coming to the United States. She went through training and then was assigned a job that would be flexible enough to allow her to still play basketball: helping American Jews who enlisted in the Israeli army get connected with host families and find financial aid.

“It has been wonderful for our players to be around someone from such a different background and culture,” U.C. Davis head coach Jennifer Gross, who played professionally in Israel after her NCAA career, told the Davis Enterprise in 2011. “I remember the first time we told our team that Idit had served two years in the Israeli army. I think our girls’ jaws dropped to the ground. They were so intrigued and anxious to hear all about her experiences.”

Oryon has several friends from the Israeli national team who play NCAA basketball, including U.C. Berkeley junior guard Avigiel Cohen from Ramat HaSharon. Cohen was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Israel. She hasn’t played much this season, but she did get into the game briefly in No. 7 Cal’s upset over No. 5 Stanford last month.

Oryon, whose mother, Edna, father, Gabriel, and younger brother, Barak, live in Jerusalem, is still undecided about her future after college. Naturally, she misses her friends and family in Israel — especially her mom’s cooking — but if she can find an interesting job opportunity, she might stay.

She does have one specific goal in mind. “It has always been a dream of mine to play for the [Israeli] women’s national team. I have played for the youth team growing up, and am hoping that I’ll get to play for the women’s team [in the European championships or maybe even the Olympics] in the near future.”

Until then, Oryon has the rest of this season and next at U.C. Davis. The Aggies’ current season continues until March and includes these upcoming home games: 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2 vs. U.C. Irvine; 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7 vs. U.C. Santa Barbara; and 2 p.m. Feb. 9 vs. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.