As a developing Division I basketball player who is 1,600 miles from home, Taijhe Kelly doesn’t get to see family and old friends that often.
But UNO’s 6-foot-4 junior center gets that chance this weekend, as the Mavericks play Saturday at Cal State-Bakersfield and Sunday at Long Beach State. The Long Beach State campus is about 15 minutes from Kelly’s home in Carson, Calif., while Bakersfield is a couple of hours away.
“I’ve always wanted to play in Cali so my family can see me,” Kelly said. “My grandma and my dad haven’t seen me play — they usually watch online.”
If others planning to see Kelly haven’t been paying attention the past three years, they might be a little surprised if they stop in for a game.
“They’ll see a totally different player,” she said. “Defensively I’m still the same, but I’m more of an offensive threat than I used to be. I think that will be the most interesting thing for them to see about me since I’ve been gone.”
Coming off a sophomore season in which she blocked 74 shots — the most by a University of Nebraska at Omaha player in 32 years and the third most in school history — Kelly picked up the pace this year. She’s averaging 3.2 blocks through five games (she averaged 2.6 per game last season). Her 133 career blocks already are the second-most in school history.
Her rebounding has continued to improve, from 4.0 per game as a freshman to 5.0 last season to 7.0 this season.
But it was her offseason offensive improvement that has been the most dramatic difference. She’s averaging 7.0 points per game (up from 4.9), while shooting 57.7 percent from the field (up from 42.7 as a freshman and 49.6 as a sophomore).
A reserve on a powerhouse high school program at Long Beach Poly, Kelly averaged 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
She played a state tournament game at the Walter Pyramid, site of Sunday’s game with Long Beach State. She doesn’t know if any of her former high school teammates will be there Sunday.
“They’re all playing somewhere (at different colleges),” she said.
Kelly came to UNO’s attention as it began its transition to Division I after a former Mav assistant got a tip from an AAU parent, Kelly said. Before she knew it, she was heading for the Midwest.
“I think I’ve adjusted, but at first it seemed kind of weird,” she said. “It seems kind of small and the weather was different ... but I like the Midwest.
“I always wanted to move away, live somewhere else and meet new people, so I was excited to be on my own in a new place with new people.”