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Saturday, December 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Zag women looking for healthy new year

Shaniqua Nilles just may be the best Christmas present the Gonzaga women’s basketball program gets this year.

Gonzaga has been oh-so-close to putting it all together to start the 2015-16 season. They had a lead on 16th-ranked Stanford in the Kennel, then saw a furious comeback bid fall just short against USC. This week North Carolina slipped past the Bulldogs in the Zags’ last game in the Naismith Hall of Fame Challenge.

There’s a piece or two missing from this year’s squad – pieces that should complete the picture once they get healthy.

Nilles is one of those key pieces, Emma Wolfram – the hero of last year’s NCAA run – is likely another.

Wolfram’s absence is obvious. A 6-foot-5 post who commands deep respect from opposing defenses? Who wouldn’t miss one of those when she’s not there.

Nilles is a somewhat different story. And in some ways, an even deeper need.

The daughter of West Valley athletic director Jamie Nilles and former WV and Mead girls basketball assistant coach Renae Duffie-Nilles is one of those players you just fall in love with as you watch.

Nilles, granted, is genetically gifted – in the same way teammate Ellie Tinkle is gifted. Nilles’ dad had a long run as head coach at West Valley; Tinkle’s dad is the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon State. Renae Duffie was a standout post at Foster on one of the greatest Class 1A teams in state history and went on to play at Community Colleges of Spokane, where she met Jamie, and later at Long Beach State. Tinkle’s mother was a standout at Montana.

As a young, coltish West Valley freshman, she was the best player on whatever floor she walked onto. At 6ish-feet she had point guard skills, post skills and a pretty, outside shot that made the net cords sing.

But it’s more than the skills.

Some players with a pedigree like hers come to the game with a sense of entitlement – that the game is there to serve them. That thought has never crossed Nilles’ mind. She grew up as a student of the game and she’s always had a deep respect for both the game and her role within the game.

When she arrived at Gonzaga she quickly realized she wasn’t a good enough ball handler to take over the role of point guard, and she wasn’t good enough to be the star shooter that can carry a team night in and night out. But she could hustle and play good defense wherever it was needed and she could be the kind of player who dives after any and every loose ball.

Because of all the things Shaniqua Nilles brings to a basketball game, the two most important things she brings are a relentlessly positive attitude and an unbreakable mental toughness.

You may look at her there on the end of the Gonzaga bench this season, dressed in street clothes and looking like she just stepped out of a photo shoot, but do not doubt her.

This kid is tougher than the entrance exam at Stanford.

Being a college athlete is a full-time job. Being a college student is a full-time job. Nilles is both, as well as the mother to a delightfully energetic little girl, Nevaeh, who has a team full of loving aunties all dressed in blue and white.

When she comes back to the court later this month, she brings a full range of gifts to the Gonzaga squad. Add that to the return of Wolfram to the middle and the Bulldogs will have plenty of bite once the West Coast Conference schedule begins in earnest.

She will be able to spell Tinkle and add superior ball-handling skills to the wing. Perhaps more than in the past, she will bring a spark of offense. She will make the team more athletic at both ends of the floor.

With Wolfram in the middle demanding defensive attention, Shelby Cheslik will find more opportunities to add offense as a forward and will allow Emma Stach to be more of a spot-up shooter, because she is deadly from the outside once she is allowed to set her feet and catch and shoot in rhythm.

And as a senior, she will be one more stellar role model for youngsters like Laura Stockton and Jill Barta – a young pair that naturally plays together in sync.

These are the final few months of Shaniqua Nilles’ collegiate playing career, and that fact is never lost on someone who appreciates the game the way she does.

Just watch, because there are two things you will see from Jamie and Renae’s little girl: She will never lose a game because of a lack of effort, and you will never have to question her passion for the game, for the program and, most of all, her teammates.

And that’s a major gift.

Steve Christilaw can be reached at steve.christilaw@

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