COLUMBIA — Lily Abreu grabs a loose ball with her team down by five. She charges through the lane before an opponent grabs her shoulder, sending her crashing to the floor.
The rough play early in the Columbia College women's basketball team's game last week against Williams Baptist College doesn't bother Abreau, though, and she quickly bounces up off the court.
No. 17 Columbia College (18-5, 11-0 AMC)
vs. Benedictine-Springfield (3-18, 0-11 AMC)
WHEN: 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Benedictine University at Springfield
“I kinda like it,” she says later about the hard foul.
Abreu is a feisty 5-foot-7 forward for the Cougars. She might not look strong, but she plays in a way that only a lifetime of adversity can craft.
A native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Abreu liked the country's more popular sport of volleyball more than basketball as a child. But when she was 12 years old, her older brother challenged her, telling her she could never play basketball at the collegiate or international levels.
Abreu decided to prove him wrong.
Although her family had a better life than many people in her country, she grew up in a modest home. And without basketball, there were no financial resources for her to receive an education.
So, thinking it would improve her chances to play basketball in college, she left home to spend her senior year of high school at Campbell High School in Atlanta, Ga.
Abreu says chances for an education in the Dominican Republic are limited.
“I know what it’s like to be in a country where you don’t have as much help (financially from the government) when you are in school,” Abreu says.
Abreu learned English simply by living in the United States and hearing it. She still struggles at times to learn coursework in English. However, she stays on top of her schoolwork.
Despite the importance of the classroom, most of Abreu’s learning takes place away from school.
“One of the best things about being in the States is that it’s about me learning different cultures,” Abreu says.
After attending Campbell, she spent her first two college seasons at Kilgore Community College, in Kilgore, Texas.
Her father died at the age of 77, five days before her first game at Kilgore. She was unable to attend the funeral and says the situation was initially very tough, but also that it inspired her to play harder that season.
After Kilgore, Abreu transferred to Division II Arkansas Tech University, which was her final season of eligibility, according to Columbia College coach Mike Davis. Davis says that because Abreu was an international student, the NCAA counted Abreu’s year at Campbell as her first year of NCAA eligibility.
However, Davis says there was no issue with the NAIA’s eligibility requirements.
So Abreu transferred to Columbia College her third school in four years. She quickly became a mentor to freshman Liliana Almeida, a native of London.
“We both know what we’re going through,” Almeida says. “She’s been away from home like I am, and she gives me advice."
Davis says Abreu has been a good role model for her younger teammates.
“She has done a really good job with our freshmen of making them feel a part of things. She’s taken them under her wing a little bit."
Although she is currently the team’s leading scorer, Abreu has spent much of this season on the bench. She fractured her left wrist before the season began and sprained her knee during a win on Jan. 5 against Park University.
In the game against Williams Baptist, Abreu played 29 minutes and had 23 points after coming off of the bench.
“I think she’s someone who likes a challenge and enjoys being challenged.” Davis says.
However, Abreu isn't unkind.
“She’s feisty,” Almeida said. “But she’s a really good person, she looks out for people and makes everyone feel welcome.”
When Abreu goes home to Santo Domingo every summer, she brings shoes, basketballs, jerseys and shorts to give to needy kids.
“I grew up in a community where there was a lot of poor people,” Abreu says. “ That’s why I love helping people. Back home, kids look up to me.”