Sarah Nelson often found herself playing a basketball version of hot potato as a freshman two seasons ago.
A teammate would pass her the basketball, and Nelson's first thought was how quickly could she get rid of it.
“I didn't want it,” she said.
A sign of Nelson's growth is that she now wants the basketball, whether it's in the post, where she uses her quickness to outfox bigger players, or away from the basket, where she can showcase a better-than-adequate outside game.
“I think confidence is the No. 1 difference between then and now,” Nelson said. “I was just not confident that first year. Even before practice, I would get nervous.
“I was lucky that I got to come in and actually have a chance to play as a freshman. That's the way 'Flan' does it here, and it allows our team to mature faster than if we're just sitting on the bench.”
Necessity also can be a factor in Creighton coach Jim Flanery's decision to try to accelerate a young player's development. Two seasons ago, Flanery found the need to turn to Nelson and Carli Tritz to fill some holes in the lineup.
That allowed Tritz and Nelson to emerge as go-to players a season ago, when the Bluejays won 20 games and played in the NCAA tournament. Creighton also is heavily counting on the duo this season, which begins Saturday with a home game against a top-15 opponent in Oklahoma.
Tritz is the Bluejays' marquee player, a first-team All-Missouri Valley pick as a sophomore and the team's leading returning scorer. In spite of some fragileness — she is currently battling knee and back problems — the guard from Sioux City brings a boot-tough approach that is vital when games are on the line.
Although she sometimes gets caught in Tritz's shadow, the 6-foot Nelson is just as valuable. She's coming off a sophomore season in which she averaged 12.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. She shot almost 50 percent from the field, but the statistic that Flanery likes to point out is Nelson's positive assists-to-turnovers ratio (84 assists, 81 turnovers).
“In women's basketball, post players normally have glaringly poor assists-to-turnovers ratios,” Flanery said. “The fact that she had more assists than turnovers last year is definitely a positive for our basketball team.”
“She really doesn't have a weakness as a post player. She's a good passer, for a post player. She's a good scorer and rebounder. I was a little concerned when they moved the 3-point line back a foot last year, but it really didn't bother Sarah. She was able to make just enough 3s that she forced opponents to go out and guard her.”
Her skills, Flanery said, might not always produce breathtaking on-court displays, which in part leads some to underappreciate Nelson's contributions. It still chafes Flanery that Nelson received honorable mention to the All-Valley team rather than a spot on the second team.
But Flanery also finds himself taking what Nelson does for granted at times.
“She's just so solid in all areas,” Flanery said. “There are not a lot of post players that we can get here at Creighton that will be as good as Sarah. There might be other kids that come in after her that score a little more or maybe have a little more of an impact on the defensive end. But it's going to be difficult for us to find a better overall player at her position.
“What makes her extremely valuable to us is that she's kind of a blender. I can move her around to accommodate the other strengths that we have. She can morph into what you need her to do, and that's what makes her a special player.”
Creighton opened up its offense as last season evolved, moving away from a team that ran a lot of set plays to a more free-flowing style. The offseason development of junior Alyssa Kamphaus, a more traditional back-to-the-basket post player, could force Nelson to again alter some of how she plays.
Regardless of where she is on the court, Nelson will bring a level of competitiveness that Flanery says sets her apart from a lot of her teammates and opponents.
“I am a little fiery,” Nelson said.
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