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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State forward Borislava Hristova is a rare Pac-12 star for Cougars

To her friends and family in the resort city of Varna, Bulgaria, she’s Borislava Hristova, a tall, unassuming introvert once reluctant to take her talent 5,885 miles from the beautiful shores of the Black Sea.

Her teammates call her Bobi.

Pac-12 commentators refer to Hristova as “Bobi Buckets,” a moniker derived four years ago when the crafty, 6-foot freshman scored with aplomb.

It hasn’t stopped.

When Washington State (7-5) hosts rival Washington (8-3) on Sunday to open conference play, Hristova will be 39 points away from breaking the Cougars’ all-time scoring record.

If Hristova plays anything like she did a year ago when she scored 38 points against the Huskies in Seattle, Jeanne (Eggart) Helfer’s 37-year-old scoring record (1,967 career points) will go down sooner rather than later.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Hristova said in a thick Eastern European accent. “I’m just trying to get that done and move forward.”

She’s a rare talent in Pullman.

With one winning Pac-12 season and NCAA Tournament berth since 1982, Washington State’s best players are seldom mentioned among the Power 6 conference’s elite.

Hristova has earned All-Pac-12 distinction three times, however, including a spot on the 2019 first team after averaging 19.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists.

The 2019 Cheryl Miller Award finalist – an award given to the country’s top small forward – may be the second Washington State player to hear her name called in the WNBA draft next summer, according to multiple mock draft sites.

Guard Lia Galdeira was selected by the Washington Mystics in the second round of the 2016 draft.

“I didn’t even know what the NCAA was or what the Pac-12 was before I came here,” Hristova said. “When teams (from America) recruited me, it was in English and I couldn’t understand it, so I’d ignore the texts.”

Hristova’s initial indifference to college basketball benefited the Cougars.

The road to Wazzu

Hristova’s size and versatility made her attractive to NCAA Division I coaches dipping into the European talent pool.

Bulgaria’s best young player was also among world’s top international recruits after lighting up FIBA tournaments, but she planned to stay in Europe to play professionally after her 18th birthday.

Hristova was ready to start making money in more basketball-rich countries like Spain and Turkey. Bulgaria’s talent and basketball culture had significantly dropped since the 1980s, Hristova said, when the country fielded one of the better national teams in the world.

Those Bulgarian teams featured fellow Varna native Lidiya Varbanova, who starred at Boise State from 1988-1992 under then-head coach June Daugherty.

Daugherty, who would later become the head coach at WSU, signed Hristova in 2015. Varbanova helped the process.

Hristova and Varbanova were teammates on a high-level club in Varna when Hristova was generating interest from Americans schools.

But Hristova wasn’t interested.

“I didn’t really want to play college in the United States,” Hristova said. “I wanted to play professionally in Europe.”

Varbanova, who had a long and successful professional career, dropped Daugherty an assist when she helped convince Hristova that her game would develop significantly in America.

So did her parents.

“My parents pushed me to come here,” she said. “They said, ‘Just go try, and you can come back any time you want if you don’t like it.’ ”

Over four years, an early season-ending injury that gave her an extra year of eligibility, a coaching change and several accolades later, she’s still in Pullman absorbing double teams.

Hristova could have transferred to a winning program when Daugherty was fired after the 2017-2018 season, like her former teammates Louise Brown and Nike McClure, who left the Cougars for Tennessee and New Mexico, respectively.

The door for the professional ranks was wide open last summer after a highly productive season under first-year coach Kamie Ethridge. She stayed.

Ethridge, who starred at Texas before winning a gold medal at the 1986 Olympics, believes she has one of the best players in the country.

“She could have left (Washington State) like others did, and just about everybody would have wanted her,” Ethridge said. “But she chose to come back, and we want to send her off with a winning season.”

Adjusting to Pullman

When Hristova left her vibrant, summer destination city for small, rural college town halfway around the globe, she had a tenuous grasp on the English language.

She navigated the WSU campus with one-word replies and kept to herself as she adjusted to American life.

The daughter of a restaurant manager and employee of a local hospital, a healthy diet is important to Hristova, who said the change to American cuisine was about as arduous as the language barrier.

“The food was a hard adjustment. There’s not a lot of options,” she said. “The food back home is a lot more fresh and healthier.”

Basketball was also different. The players she faced in the Pac-12 were physical and athletic, with the type of explosion she rarely faced in Europe.

Her adaptation was swift, much like her English, which she now speaks fluently.

Teammate and friend Jovana Subasic – a 6-4 forward from Bulgaria’s neighbor, Serbia – remembers Hristova’s early social struggles.

“She did not know any English. Like, none of it,” Subasic said. “It’s gotten a lot better.”

Her game did most of the talking.

Hristova averaged a team-high 16.3 points as a freshman and 14.7 through the first nine games of her sophomore season before suffering a season-ending foot injury at Gonzaga.

When Hristova goes on her usual scoring tears, it’s with a quiet confidence.

“Everything she does in life is very calculated,” Subasic said. “She is really serious about basketball, her diet and is an extremely good friend.

“She keeps her life really private. She’s one of my best friends, probably, and there’s a lot I don’t know about her.”

Ethridge notices many of the same things.

“She’s very shy in social settings,” Ethridge said. “But she has a great laugh, like a junior high girl’s giggle that’s very sincere. She loves people.”

Hristova considers herself kind but focused, spending much of her free time in her apartment and keeping in touch with friends and relatives back home.

“I’m not a person who goes out and has fun,” Hristova said. “Not a big partier, but it’s good to enjoy the college life.

“A lot of Bulgarians like the WSU basketball Facebook page now.”

Hristova will leave Pullman with a diploma. The 23-year-old earned a sports management degree in May and is in the midst of a 12-week internship in WSU’s athletic offices.

Getting better

Before Ethridge was given the keys to WSU’s program, she turned Northern Colorado into a Big Sky Conference contender, winning regular-season and tournament titles in 2018, her final year with the program.

Inheriting a player of Hristova’s caliber was a major boon in Ethridge’s process of turning the Cougars into a winner.

Ethridge wants to squeeze every ounce of potential out of Hristova before her pro career. It’s not always easy.

“She’s very tough on us, me in particular,” Hristova said. “She’ll expose every lack of effort of a player. She’ll do her best to get the most out of you.”

Hristova hasn’t always been receptive to Ethridge’s approach.

“We butt heads sometimes,” Ethridge said. “Every great player has a stubborn streak, but I want that.”

Hristova gets the most out of her attempts, too, shooting a career mark of 45.9% from the field.

“She’s a big guard that has explosiveness and range that keeps defenders honest,” Ethridge said of Hristova, who has 100 career 3-pointers. “She can get to the rim and manufacture shots, and is also a good passer and ball handler, but I think she can improve on defense.”

It’s one of the reasons why Hristova returned for a fifth season, hoping to sharpen up few things before making the next step.

Subasic, whose Serbian national team had multiple WNBA players on its roster, believes Hristova is ready for the next level.

“She is the best player on our team, yet very unselfish,” Subasic said. “When you’re a scorer like that, you don’t like to pass, but she’s different.”