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Connecticut vs. Nebraska, 12.21.16

Nebraska guard Nicea Eliely (right) and Connecticut's Kia Nurse chase after a loose ball Dec. 21 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

When Nicea Eliely committed to play basketball at Nebraska in September 2015, and when she signed a few months later, she never would have guessed her college career would start like this.

But things changed quickly for the Huskers. Eliely has started all 19 games this season and done a good job with her opportunity.

The 6-foot-1 freshman guard leads the team in assists (51), steals (33) and blocks (15). She’s second on the team in scoring, averaging 7.8 points per game.

Things changed for Eliely in the aftermath of coach Connie Yori resigning during an athletic department investigation into the program. All-conference guard Natalie Romeo transferred. Nebraska’s two top-ranked guards in Eliely’s recruiting class went elsewhere.

So Eliely found herself in a spot she never expected.

“I didn’t expect to start, or anything like that,” she said. “I knew I was going to play, but I didn’t know how many minutes I was going to get. I just wanted to work hard and get better.”

While the Huskers' season has been disappointing (5-14, 1-6 Big Ten) by the standards fans had gotten used to over the past 10 years, it could be worse if Eliely and freshman guard Hannah Whitish hadn’t exceeded projections. Whitish is third in scoring for the Huskers at 7.4 points per game, and has a team-best 31 three-pointers.

“We needed to have some people step up,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said. “We knew with not just losing a couple of recruits from this particular class, but also losing some experienced perimeter players to graduation and transfer, it’s created outstanding opportunity for those kids to be able to step in and find ways to contribute. Also, we’ve needed to have their production, so they’ve kind of been forced a little bit to grow up. It’s an incredible thing to be freshmen and to be able to have opportunities that they’ve been having to learn and log game minutes like they have.”

Eliely is shooting a team-best 45 percent from the field, thanks in part to making some layups after getting steals. She scored a season-high 19 points in a loss to California last month.

Williams watched Eliely play club basketball when Williams was coaching at South Dakota and Eliely was living in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The coach said Eliely has exceeded expectations.

“She’s confident, and plays with confidence, which is a great thing to see,” Williams said. “And the opportunity has been available for her. Those two things coupled together has led to a pretty great start to her freshman year.”

Eliely has been able to make a big impact on defense, and says she hasn’t just viewed defense as a chance to play early in her career. She’s seen how getting steals can bring energy to the team.

“It’s probably one of my favorite things, is defense, because defense creates offense,” Eliely said.

Williams is impressed by how Eliely regularly fills up the side of the stat sheet that includes things such as rebounds, blocked shots and steals.

“I think defensively she has instincts and she’s got great length and athleticism,” Williams said. “Where most freshmen are having to go through this learning curve and having to kind of adjust to the speed of the game, she’s got an incredible ability to even if she makes a mistake in her initial positioning, or something like that, defensively she’s athletic enough, quick enough, long enough that she can adjust a lot of times and still make a defensive play. One of her biggest strengths is being able to create some offense from her defense.”

Nebraska began recruiting Eliely later than it did some other players in the class, but she was glad when it did. She also visited Colorado and Wichita State.

“It was really cool, because it was a school in the Big Ten and it was exciting and something different,” Eliely said. “My mom and my dad and I were super-excited to come out and see Nebraska.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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