Those who filed into Simmons Bank Arena last Thursday for the University of Arkansas-Little Rock's Ohio Valley Conference-opening doubleheader against Tennessee-Martin could be forgiven if they didn't recognize a familiar face halfway down the Trojans' bench.
Sali Kourouma was back. Her long hair not so much.
Kourouma was a welcome sight for UALR, no matter the hairdo, especially after the Trojans spent the first two months of the season as one of the worst scoring offenses in the nation. Before its most recent two games, UALR was averaging 47.9 points and had failed to reach 50 points in eight of 11 games.
But the Trojans' leading scorer from a year ago was equally grateful to be reunited with her teammates after several anxious months back in her home country of Mali.
"I just wanted to come back and do like I was doing before," Kourouma told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Play hard and make [my family] more proud of me."
That she was going to have the opportunity to do that wasn't guaranteed.
Kourouma came to the United States as a high schooler in 2017 and hadn't returned to Africa since. Between having not seen her family in-person in five years and needing to hand-deliver the money raised to rebuild her parents' home, Kourouma headed back to Kati in May.
The timing seemed to be relatively convenient -- her student visa had expired and thus, she'd visit the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Bamako. Kourouma had an appointment scheduled for late May, only for her renewal request to be rejected.
"They gave us the bylaw, but it's very ambiguous," explained UALR assistant coach Bobby Brasel, who coordinated with the university's international office and the U.S. State Department throughout Kourouma's renewal process. "There could've been a million things in the bylaws that didn't go well. ... I even reached out to other schools that had international kids and this was the first one that I knew [of] that had a problem."
In June, the U.S. acknowledged a 24-month transition of the Malian government that began in March 2022, and in July, a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory was issued for Mali by the U.S. State Department. But as the Council on Foreign Relations notes on its website, Mali has been roiled by crises for more than a decade as military coups were carried out in Aug. 2020 and May 2021.
Neither Kourouma nor Brasel specified why Kourouma couldn't get her visa renewed in May. Yet Brasel said other Malian student-athletes were able to get approved around the same time in other countries, namely Senegal and the Bahamas.
Kourouma made several attempts to reach out to the U.S. Embassy, never getting a response about a new appointment. If she couldn't be back in the U.S. by Sept. 6, then she couldn't take in-person classes and thus be eligible for a student visa in the fall semester.
And if Kourouma wasn't enrolled in classes, then UALR, under NCAA rules, could neither house nor feed her.
Kourouma was ultimately able to get an appointment in late September -- at which her visa was renewed -- but it meant she wouldn't be back in Little Rock until December.
"At one point, I was like, 'Is it just over for me?' " Kourouma said. "When I told my parents that I had the visa, they were more happy than even me ... because they want me to follow my dream."
Besides now having short hair -- Kourouma explained that she cut it both for religious purposes and because her mom likes it that way -- the only difference for the Trojan standout has been working out on her own up until this week.
Because Kourouma could only run and do body-weight exercises back home, with the occasional pickup game in between, the 5-11 forward had mostly been practicing solo to regain fitness. Kourouma said between May and December, she put on about seven or eight pounds.
There's been adjusting to several UALR new teammates, but she's already scored 29 points in 50 minutes, tracking closely with her per 40-minute totals from last season (23.2 this year vs. 23.5).
After seven months with her family, Kourouma had some trepidation over leaving home once again.
To live out her parents' wishes, however, coming back to Little Rock was the only option.
"Having all the joy that you haven't [for so long] ... and then now just trying to be separate is hard," Kourouma said. "But it was time for me to go."