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MISSOULA — Mariola Tesoro smiles all the time.

That's not particularly noteworthy for a high school girl walking around the mall or attending a slumber party. For Tesoro, a senior foreign exchange student from Spain who has quickly become a catalyst for the Hamilton girls basketball team, it's somewhat unique in the heat of battle.

Whether she's dribbling up the floor, launching a 3-ball, cutting off a dribbler or even committing a foul, Tesoro smiles. It's as if the point guard is immune to the stress and intensity of American high school sports.

"I like it here because it's really different," said Tesoro, who scored a game-high 19 points in leading the Broncs to a 68-29 win over Polson Saturday night in the Western A Tip-Off at the Adams Center.

"The gyms are awesome, amazing. In Spain we have good gyms but not that much. There is a lot of people here and it's really loud and I love it. I love America."

In 31 years of coaching, Hamilton girls basketball skipper Mark Albert has never had a foreign exchange student capable of helping him on the hardwood. Typically it's soccer or tennis or maybe there's a place-kicker that occasionally makes a dent.

"It's actually kind of an interesting story," Albert said of Tesoro. "I'm the head cross country coach, too. She came out a little bit late for cross country, about two weeks, and I said, 'Oh, great! You can join us.'

"Within two or three days I asked, 'What else do you do?' She said I play basketball. She ended up being our No. 4 varsity runner, just a competitor, tough. I told her we have open gym and she came one night and it was, 'OK, this is going to be really special.'"

Watching the 5-foot-6 Tesoro play, you notice right away she has a different skill set. She shoots a two-handed set shot — think Bob Cousy — and has an uncommon grasp of all aspects of the game. That includes defense, passing and ball handling, including an impressive behind-the-back move capable of confounding defenders intent on stripping the ball.

"We're trying to get her to do a little bit more of an American style sometimes with the jump-stops," Albert related. "She definitely has a European game. I'd like her to slow down a little bit sometimes.

"But boy she sees the floor really well and obviously can shoot it. We put her at the 1 (point guard) and she pushes really well. She was fantastic today. She keeps growing all the time and I think we have some things we can help her with."

With the loss of four starters from last season, Hamilton was not the preseason pick to win the Southwest A. With the addition of Tesoro and the return of senior center Lauren Ryter — she missed this weekend's games but is expected back Tuesday — Hamilton (2-1) is most certainly going to push for top honors.

And even if the Broncs don't, you better believe they're going to have fun. How can you not with a point guard flashing her infectious smile all the time?

"We've got a team of smilers anyway, but nothing bigger than hers," Albert said of Tesoro, who hails from Madrid. "It's constant and it's pretty neat.

"We had a rule today: If you tried to get a steal and missed it — we call it lunging — we said you're coming out. She did it like twice and the second time she looks over and smiles. She knows she's coming out. But it's been a real pleasure to coach her."

Tesoro's ultimate dream is to earn a basketball scholarship in America. That would be great for her, she says, but hard on her mom if she lived so far away.

For now she's enjoying the ride with the Broncs and savoring the American game, which is less physical than the club ball she's used to playing in Spain.

"I think we have more intensity in Spain because we have more contact, but the level is exactly like the same," said the senior, who hit three triples in the first period in helping the Broncs build a 27-3 lead. "My teammates here, they are super fun. They know how to play basketball. They read the game and they move really good.

"It's super cool because I always watched films about America, playing basketball, and I thought I want to be there."

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Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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