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Aiming high . . . Matt Brien has been attending the University of Nebraska-Kearney, playing for the Lopers. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

In times of adversity, Matt Brien has discovered his strength.

When the former St Kevin’s College pupil arrived at the University of Nebraska-Kearney on a basketball scholarship two years ago, he was told he had been deemed ineligible to play by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) because he had completed an extra year of secondary school at St Patrick’s College in Wellington.

What could have been a major setback, Brien used to his advantage. He focused on his academic work, studying to be a physical education teacher, and continued to train with the team, so he would be ready to play the following year.

Then Covid-19 hit.

When the university shut down in March, he considered coming home – but instead decided to stay with a friend in South Dakota.

In May, he was able to return to campus, and returned to basketball training with coach Keith Lofton.

Just when classes were about to start in September, he contracted Covid-19.

“It was pretty weird. For those first couple of days I was pretty knocked around, my body was low energy and I was pretty crook,” the 22-year-old said.

“After those two days there was no other symptoms other than a loss of smell and taste.”

He lost those senses for a month, but counted himself lucky to get the virus before the basketball season started.

Throughout the season, all of his team-mates also contracted Covid-19.

“We had about five guys missing for our first game of the year because they all had it. Each week we’d be playing with a different team.”

During the season, there was a mask mandate and players would have their temperature taken each morning, answer questions and have various other tests. Those who had not already contracted Covid-19 were tested every week.

Covid-19 disrupted most basketball conferences over the past year, but the Lopers were able to play 22 of their 28 scheduled games. Because of the pandemic, the NCAA opted not to count last season towards eligibility, so Brien could still play for another two years.

While the results had not gone the Lopers’ way last season, Brien was just happy to be finally hitting the court again.

“It was a good experience playing college basketball rather than just watching on the sidelines. It’s definitely more athletic and a faster game over there … New Zealand’s more physical,” he said.

It also gave him the opportunity to travel more, and attend NBA games.

Brien returned to Oamaru in May and was spending time with family before returning to Nebraska in August to get straight into pre-season training, he said.

He was looking forward to giving back to the community that helped him get a start in the sport he loves, hosting a basketball camp at St Kevin’s College next week.

The camp was open to players aged 7 to 9 and would include a variety of skills and drills sessions.

“I’m just passing on the stuff that I’ve picked up and all the knowledge that I’ve got – and giving back to the community.”

He loved supporting young basketballers who were coming through the ranks, previously helping St Kevin’s juniors and supporting the seniors when he was home in 2019.