Shaniqua Nilles has always been a coach’s kid through and through. All 6 feet of her.
So it’s no surprise that the forward from West Valley High would take a look at her surroundings and see a niche on the Gonzaga women’s basketball team that on the one hand fits her like a glove, and on the other wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to someone who wasn’t steeped in the game from the time she first picked up a ball and bounced it in the living room.
An All-State player at West Valley who was equally at home at the post or the point, Nilles arrived at Gonzaga with a proven ability to score points. But it was her cat-quick reflexes, the athleticism that made her a three-sport standout in high school, and her mind for the game that are earning her minutes in this, her third season in coach Kelly Graves’ program.
When she first arrived on campus, she talked about her situation with both parents. What do I do, she asked them. I’m not a good enough outside shooter to be that player and I’m not a good enough ballhandler to help out at the point. What do I work on?
Well, Jamie and Renae Nilles told their daughter, you could try working on your shot and working on your ballhandling skills and help out in both spots.
“It was, like, duh,” Nilles laughed.
After a red-shirt season and a season filling in off the bench in 21 games, the crossroad reappeared.
“I think I finally started to figure it out towards the end of last year,” Nilles said. “I realized that it wasn’t in the cards for me to be the one this team counts on to score points. So, what else can I do? Well, I can be the one who dives on the floor after loose balls. I can be the one who defends another team’s post player and shove them around a little. I can defend a little bit.
“Everybody is competing for minutes. I want my minutes, but I want us to win. My minutes don’t get us to the tournament at the end of the year. I’m more concerned with how my team is doing, how my teammates are doing.”
And the team is doing just fine. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the second week in a row and reached the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, losing to No. 11 Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., 82-78.
Just don’t call the Zags underdogs going up against a team the likes of Oklahoma.
“We always are so looked at as the underdog,” Nilles said. “We haven’t really been an underdog the last four or five years. We don’t think of ourselves that way. We think we can go out and beat anyone.
“Oklahoma came into that game ranked No. 11. Who cares. We went there thinking we belong there. I was proud of my team. We had so much energy, so much passion. I’m disappointed we lost. After that game we were all tired, physically and mentally, because we gave it everything we had. I was tired and my voice was gone.”
Nilles had her most playing time thus far this season against the Sooners, playing 14 minutes, scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds before fouling out.
“One of the big things for us, I think, will be to adjust to the rule changes that college basketball is going through,” she said. “I fouled out. I wasn’t very happy about that, personally. I think we’re going to have to develop kind of a ‘Keep-our-hands-to-ourselves’ kind of defensive.
“This was a great confidence builder for us. Oklahoma is a great team and we went in there and should have won the game. And look, it’s only November! We belong here!”
The Sooners did expose a challenge the Zags will face all season: the lack of a traditional, wide-body post player.
That’s not the kind of player Graves recruits, Nilles said. Instead, he looks more for players like Sunny Greinacher and Nilles – post players who are athletic enough to play, or have played, point guard.
“That’s going to be a challenge for us to have to defend teams that have those kinds of post players,” Nilles said. “If a team is able to get the entry pass to their post players, we’re going to be in trouble. It’s much better for us to defend that entry pass and deny it. That’s where being quicker and more athletic is an advantage.
“But you can say the same thing about the other end of the floor. They’re going to have to defend us when we have the ball.”
To help meet that kind of challenge, the Zags spent the summer in the weight room, making themselves stronger.
“I think we were all a little disappointed in how our season finished last year,” Nilles said. “We all committed to putting in a lot of time in the weight room. I think if our fans were to witness just how much time and effort we’ve put into making ourselves better, they’d be really proud.
“It’s been a huge team thing. If I feel like I need to get in an extra lift, all I have to do is call any one of my teammates and they’d be right there with me, whether it was getting in some extra shots, extra conditioning, anything.”
The hard works shows. Shelby Cheslek, for example, who was a rail-thin, 6-5 post player from Pullman, actually has muscles to flex this season.
“Shelby always was kind of a stick in high school,” Nilles said with a laugh. The pair played against each other many times a season over their careers.
Cheslek and Sunny Greinacher, a 6-4 forward from Essen, Germany, both have added muscle to their inside game.
“Sunny didn’t go home to play in Germany over the summer,” Nilles said. “She stayed here and worked out with us all summer.
“With Sunny, I can throw my whole body on her in practice and she will still follow through with an amazing shot right through contact. It’s incredible.”
Make no mistake, Nilles said. There are big things in Gonzaga’s future.
“We have the makings of a really good team,” she said. “We just need a few more games to fine-tune a few things. Once it all clicks it’s going to be amazing to see, and it’s going to be fun for our fans. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Once it’s finished, it’s amazing.”