Brothers' deaths helped shape Florida State's Adut Bulgak

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Posted: Feb 20, 2016 2:05 AM
Brothers' deaths helped shape Florida State's Adut Bulgak

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Adut Bulgak has the name of her late brothers — Deng Atem and Bul Atem — on each shoe.

The 6-foot-4 center for No. 10 Florida State is one of the top seniors in women's college basketball, averaging 13.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. She will graduate in May with a degree in sociology, likely be selected in the WNBA Draft and try out for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team.

For some, that much going on could be overwhelming, but not for the 23-year-old.

"I built a tougher mentality because I had some terrible things happen to me just like other people have," she said.

She was born in Sudan but the family eventually came to Canada from Kenya in 1998 when she was 6. When the family eventually settled in Edmonton, it was her brothers who raised her while her parents worked.

"I would definitely think my brothers had a big part in shaping me into who I am today," Bulgak said. "They were like my parents. They disciplined me and basically taught me all my morals. They were very mature for their ages. It was like having extra parents."

On May 15, 2007, Deng Atem was found dead in the family's backyard in a double homicide. The family came home to discover what happened when they saw barricades and police in the front yard.

On Sept. 14, 2009, Bul Atem died in a car accident. Both were 22.

"The first one was tough but the second was 10 times as worse. It was definitely surreal," Bulgak said. "I didn't think I was going to be OK after that but I'm still here."

Bulgak credits sports as her therapy. Volleyball was her favorite growing up but a recurring shoulder problem led her to devote more time to basketball.

Ron Kutney, Bulgak's coach at Archbishop O'Leary High School, first saw her play in junior high. The physical tools stood out but it was the mental toughness that made more of an impression.

"Her degree of maturity at a young age was above average. She built a personal strength out of necessity and in some ways grew up faster," Kutney said. "She could have folded and fallen into a bunch of problems but she saw that sports and education could serve as a means to benefit her and her family."

Bulgak also took on more responsibilities at home and became a role model to younger members of her family. Kutney said he remembers seeing plenty of Bulgak's cousins cheer her on during games.

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Bulgak initially committed to North Carolina before opting for junior college first. She went to Trinity Valley Junior College in Texas and won two national titles in 2013 and '14. She also was the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year in 2014.

Several schools — including Baylor and Texas — were interested in Bulgak but she chose Florida State because she said she felt a sisterhood with the players and coach Sue Semrau.

The Seminoles reached the Elite Eight last season as Bulgak led the team in scoring (12.3 points per game) and rebounds (9.5). Florida State (21-5), which hosts second-ranked Notre Dame on Monday, had won 11 straight before Thursday's 83-73 loss at No. 23 Syracuse.

Bulgak received votes for The Associated Press Preseason All-America team. Back in high school when she wasn't starting, Bulgak asked Kutney what she needed to do to get more playing time. Kutney said be a better defender. Since then it has been her strength.

"We have so many weapons that everyone can score but you have to stand out in other ways," Bulgak said.

Offensively, Bulgak has a wide range, including making 40 percent of her 3-pointers (24 of 60) this season.

"She's a world-class rebounder but she also has a pure shot and likes to extend it," Semrau said.

A tryout with Canada's senior team last year, where she was competing against teammates in their late 20s, provided a good basis for this season. Bulgak often was playing shooting forward and needed to improve her ball handling along with learning that the international game can be more physical.

She was also part of the Canadian National Development Team that played at the World University Games last summer. Bulgak led the team in scoring (15.5 points per game) and was second among all players in rebounds at 10.7. The Canadian Olympic team tryouts will be in May in Edmonton.

"She has become a more efficient scorer from the outside this season which makes her even more of a mismatch problem when post defenders have to guard her aggressively behind the arc," said ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson, who said Bulgak should be a first-round pick in April's WNBA Draft. "She has a great body with size, length, and versatility. She has only begun to scratch the surface of what she can do."

Bulgak's immediate goals, though, are to try to get Florida State to the Women's Final Four for the first time. A month later she will be the first member of her family to graduate from college.

"At first sports and basketball was more of an escape I could get away from anything and not have to think about it," she said. "Just being around it all the time, I kept getting better at it and that's when I started to enjoy sports."

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Follow Joe Reedy at twitter.com/joereedy. His work can be found at http://collegebasketball.ap.org/journalist/joe-reedy