Marty Leahy admits it has been adjustment playing college basketball, in the United States, at the highest level.
“Coming in I’d never versed players as big as here,” he said. “Not only are they that big, but they’re able to do stuff and are really fit and athletic. Whereas in Australia, if you see someone that big, they’re just some lanky kinda guy that’s not gonna do much.
“So at first it was kinda hard adjusting on defense and playing to the faster game. But I think it’s getting better. Now that I’ve adjusted I’m able to fit in as well.”
Leahy is 9,000 away from home, battling his teammates for playing time, battling the opposition when the lights go on, battling homesickness and missing Brisbane, Australia. But through 16 games, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard has improved steadily.
And he’s only scratching the surface of his basketball acumen.
“I think I’ve just gotten tougher. Tougher to defend,” He said. “I’m just a little bit quicker as well. I think I’m smarter, too. Just being able to read things that aren’t right in front of you. There’s a lot more going on than what you just have right in front of you and that’s a lot different than what I’m used to for sure.”
Leahy has played in every game for the Hilltoppers (9-7, 3-0 Conference USA), a team that has won five straight and hosts Old Dominion at 5 p.m. Saturday in E.A. Diddle Arena. He’s only averaging two points per game in 10 minutes per contest, but has been a steady option off the bench for first-year coach Rick Stansbury.
In Thursday’s win against Charlotte, Leahy knocked down a 3 with 6:23 to play that drew WKU within 64-62 – a shot that kept the Tops close in a game that was hanging in the balance.
“There has been a lot of improvements,” said Leahy’s mother – or mum – Theresa Leahy. “I think it’s the confidence, because having come from Australia, the way of playing is so different to what he plays here now. A lot of coaching the coaches have given him I think has given him a lot of confidence.”
Theresa Leahy and John Leahy watched from Section 115 in E.A. Diddle Arena on Thursday. They’ve been in the States on a four-week visit to watch their son live out his dream of playing college basketball.
“I don’t recall there being any doubt in his mind about wanting to play here,” John said. “Once he had the opportunity – I mean, he had been in discussion with quite a number of schools. But coach Stansbury came to him directly and I think he made the decision pretty quickly once we were able to check out the university as a university.”
Marty, whose full first name is Matineng-iakah, began to develop his game – in part – from a happenstance decision to represent his mother’s homeland of Papua New Guinea. He was contacted by coach Joel Khalu, along with a handful of other Australian players with Papua New Guinea roots, to play for the national team in the 2015 Pacific Games in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Leahy averaged 14 points and eight rebounds for a PGN side that finished in fourth place.
“I love Marty’s versatility as a player,” Khalu told WBKO via email. “With his combined speed, strength and skill set he can play a variety of positions at both ends of the floor. That combined with the fact that he works extremely hard and he’s so coachable makes him a player that any coach would want as part of their program.”
Leahy said he and his family would visit his mother’s home country as a youth, but he didn’t truly recognize the population’s passion for the growth of basketball until the 2015 Pacific Games. The small island nation of about 7 million people gravitates more toward rugby and Australian rules football and cricket.
Papua New Guinea lost its opener of the '15 games to New Caledonia, then beat American Samoa, Fiji and Nauru. Wins over Tahiti and Samoa before a loss to Guam put PNG in the semifinals where it was eliminated by Fiji.
“We had a little training camp in February and met once or twice as a team before actually playing the tournament,” Leahy said. “Basketball is not a huge sport there but we had thousands of village people come out and watch us and it was so cool. They were crazy fanatics.
“They don’t have too much, but they follow their sport like it’s everything.”
There’s a chance Leahy could rejoin the team to play in the 2019 Pacific Games in Tonga.
“Marty is a true-role model for the sport in PNG,” Khalu wrote. “He became a cult hero with his dynamic play at the Pacific Games and now that he’s continued on to play Division I college basketball in the U.S, that has only strengthened his profile even further. I know everybody involved with the sport in PNG is excited about his development and is looking forward to the next time they get to see him play in the Red, Black and Gold.
“The great thing about Marty is that he’s not only an excellent basketball player and unselfish teammate, but he’s an even better person.”
Leahy, who grew up in Cairns, Australia, before moving to Brisbane, averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game for Ipswich Grammar School where he also played volleyball. He said around the age of 15 he began to organize his profile academically to align himself for the opportunity to play in the U.S.
After mostly being in contact with Division II programs (Metro State in Denver and Maryville in Saint Louis to name a couple), Leahy began to get noticed from places like Arizona, Arizona State, Southern Illinois and California State Fullerton. He visited Western Kentucky in April and then signed with the program in May.
Now, halfway through his first year in America, Leahy is only getting better and the Hilltoppers are beginning to put things together as a team. His family will have plenty to boast about when returning home.
“They’ve won every game since we’ve been here," John Leahy joked, "so I think that must have something to do with it.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop
After 3 long weeks in PNG living, training and playing with our new brothers, we've placed 4th in the Pacific Games. We just missed out on the bronze medal but have accomplished more and placed higher than basketball in PNG has ever seen. So proud of how far this team has come and excited for future games. #TeamPNG