Shae Kelley had options. Undergraduate degree in hand, she had just finished her junior year of eligibility at Old Dominion, amassing 1,000-plus career points and earning an all-Conference USA first-team selection.
And the Colorado native — an athletic and explosive 6-1 forward — was looking to fill a glaring hole on her already impressive three-year college résumé: an NCAA tournament appearance.
Because she had already graduated, Kelley could use what’s become an increasingly more common exception that allowed her to transfer and play right away, without having to sit out a season.
Surprising to some, that’s where the Gophers came in, a team with a first-year head coach, a slew of young players and an NCAA tournament drought that had just reached five seasons. Despite assumptions that the 2014-15 season would be a rebuilding one for Minnesota, Kelley felt the Gophers were ready.
“Very ready,” she said following her career-high 33-point performance in a victory over Wisconsin on Wednesday, a win that put the Gophers at 19-6 on the season and 8-5 in the Big Ten.
The Gophers had star guard Rachel Banham, a budding star in center Amanda Zahui B., and a new up-tempo offense brought to Minneapolis by first-year coach Marlene Stollings.
“I saw all of that just being a plus,” Kelley said.
And as a roller-coaster Gophers season reaches its crescendo, Kelley’s expectations are looking pretty accurate.
The Gophers have had their ups and downs: a 16-2 start, the loss of Banham to a season-ending knee injury, a 1-4 slump and a current two-game winning streak heading into Sunday’s game at Penn State. But, through it all, they’ve maintained a legitimate chance of making the tournament field.
Kelley has played a huge role in that. Paired with Zahui, the Gophers have had one of the most dominant frontcourts in the Big Ten. Zahui, the Gophers’ 6-5 sophomore, leads the team with 17.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Kelley isn’t far behind at 16.3 points and 9.2 boards.
Both players should be candidates for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, Stollings said.
But neither the coach nor the players are concerned about that, she said. The only thing that matters now is amassing enough wins (they call 22 a magic number) to ensure an NCAA berth.
With her career winding down, Kelley says it’s now or never. She’s out of options.
“[It would mean] everything,” Kelley said. “This is my last year, so this is my last chance to do it.”