SPORTS
03/21/2014 06:29 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Achonwa, Hamblin lead 15 Canadian women in March Madness tournament

Growing up on a ranch in northwestern B.C., Ruth Hamblin was more comfortable on a horse than the hardcourt.

Then she grew to be 6-6.

The sophomore centre, who led the Pac-12 conference in blocked shots this season, is one of three Canadians on the Oregon State women's basketball team playing in March Madness, and one of 15 total Canadian women in the tournament.

Hamblin had an unlikely basketball upbringing, raised on a 2,000-acre Black Angus cattle ranch in Houston, B.C., four hours west of Prince George and a 12-hour drive from Vancouver.

There were 10 students in her graduating class at Houston Christian, yet the team won the Single A provincial high school title in each of her final two years.

"We pretty much had the whole high school on the team," said Hamblin, who was named tournament MVP both years.

She had her own horses through high school, and competed in show jumping and 4-H events. On the Oregon State team page, she listed Canadian equestrian legend Ian Millar and basketball great Michael Jordan as her two favourite athletes.

"It was really cool growing up on a farm, as kids we got to do a lot of work on the farm, you get to see all the trials, but also all the benefits of farming, it was a really good experience," she said.

Her strong play in high school earned her a spot on the B.C. provincial team, and while playing in a tournament in Seattle she was spotted by Oregon State.

Hamblin averaged 10 points and 8.7 rebounds a game this season, and her 133 total blocks not only led the Pac-12 conference, but were more than double any other player in the conference.

Among her teammates at Oregon State are Jamie Weisner, who grew up in Clarkston, Wa., but is eligible to play for Canada and was part of the national team pool last season, and Kolbie Orum, a 6-3 freshman forward from Maple Ridge, B.C.

Much like the Canadian men playing in March Madness, the majority of women also play key roles on their team.

Weisner, a 5-10 sophomore guard, led the Beavers in scoring this season with 12.2 points a game.

"(NCAA coaches) are looking up here more because it's almost like an untapped resource for them," said Michele O'Keefe, Canada Basketball's director of basketball operations. "But I think the other part of it is we're being more specific with our athlete training, so they're not just going down there and playing a role, they're now the go-to player on the team.

"That's key for us because we don't want anybody who gets to the end of the game and the ball becomes a hot potato and no-one is comfortable taking it to the basket or being the one to carry the weight of the team. Our athletes are playing those roles now."

Hamblin said she'll often come across Canadians on opposing NCAA teams. And the Canadian women playing down south keep tabs on each other.

"After games we'll give each other a little hug, say hi, and on Twitter we'll banter," she said. "It's kind of a neat camaraderie."

The Canadian contingent down south is led by Natalie Achonwa, a senior forward from Guelph, Ont., who guided the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to a perfect 29-0 regular-season record.

"It's really awesome to (Canadian players) emerging, when they're starting to receive all-American awards, when they're playing and contending with all the top players in (the U.S.)," Hamblin said. "I think it's really good for basketball in Canada."