Creighton forward Sarah Nelson once measured her ability to impact a basketball game by the number of points she scored.
No more. That’s one reason Nelson considers a game against Houston in which she “couldn’t make a shot” and scored just three points as maybe her best performance in the first two months of the season.
“It was one of those games that if someone would have said your life depends on this layup, I probably would have missed it,” she said with a laugh. “I realized that I had to find other ways to impact that game.”
Nelson did, grabbing 16 rebounds and recording seven assists as the Bluejays posted a 21-point victory.
“I’ve come to understand that even on an off-shooting night,” Nelson said, “that there are other ways that I can help our team out.”
It could be argued that no Creighton player has had a bigger impact on the Bluejays’ 10-3 start than the 6-foot Nelson. She leads Creighton in scoring (12.6 average), rebounding (7.7), shooting percentage (.508) and blocked shots (18).
Her 49 assists are just four fewer than team leader Carli Tritz, while Nelson’s 15 3-point baskets put her fourth on a team loaded with perimeter gunners. She also leads the Bluejays, and ranks 43rd nationally, in assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.96 to 1).
“If I tell her what I think she needs to do for us to win,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said, “she really focuses on it.”
Flanery points to four December victories that underscore the varied ways Nelson has impacted the Bluejays. The first came against Nebraska, when she helped hold All-Big Ten forward Jordan Hooper scoreless. Nelson scored four points in the win while finishing with eight rebounds and six assists.
She followed that up with the strong rebounding effort against Houston, Then, in the opening game of a tournament in Cancun, Nelson had seven assists and no turnovers to go along with seven rebounds against Miami (Ohio).
In the championship game, Nelson made 12 of 14 shots and scored a season-high 29 points against South Florida.
“She helped us win all four of those games in very different ways,” Flanery said. “Point guards can usually do that but that’s unusual for a post player to help you in so many ways.
“She’s among the national leaders in assists-to-turnovers, and I bet she’s the only post player on that list.”
Add it all together and Creighton has gotten more of an all-around player than Flanery thought he landed when Nelson committed to the Bluejays.
“I thought she’d be a good scorer for us,” Flanery said. “She allows us to do some things offensively that make us the 3-point shooting team that we are. A lot of the things we do offensively are a product of her versatility.”
Nelson averaged almost 20 points a game as a Westside senior, and she finished her high school career as the Warriors’ all-time leading scorer (1,418 points). She averaged 7.2 points per game as a part-time starter as a Creighton freshman, then increased her scoring average to 12.4 last season as a sophomore.
She’s always been a strong rebounder but Nelson credits Flanery for the biggest improvement in her game. After averaging 1.8 assists her first two seasons at Creighton, Nelson has increased that to 3.8 as a junior.
“Flan told me my freshman year that I wasn’t a very good passer,” Nelson said. “I didn’t get offended but I was like, ‘Hey, I think I’m a little better than that.’
“I’ve definitely worked on that part of my game. I’ve spent a lot of time working on making sure my passes are on target because I knew I needed to get better at that.”
Flanery hopes Nelson is clicking on all parts of her game Friday night when the Bluejays host Illinois State in a 7:05 p.m. game at D.J. Sokol Arena. The teams share first place in the Missouri Valley with 2-0 league records.
Flanery is concerned about his team’s health as starting guards Carli Tritz and McKenzie Fujan are battling nagging knee injuries. Both players sat out practice on Thursday.
“We’re fairly deep if they’re healthy,” Flanery said, “but obviously not as deep if they’re not.”
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