For the past week, Shae Kelley has felt like the kid whose name is on the biggest, most beautifully wrapped package under the Christmas tree. The Gophers forward always has wanted to play in the NCAA tournament, and with her team likely to claim its first invitation in six years, she’s been restlessly awaiting Monday’s announcement of the field.
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings is just as anxious to find out where the Gophers will go and who they will play in a first-round game Friday or Saturday. But she received a priceless gift before the season even began, when Kelley chose to play her final college season in Minnesota. The fifth-year senior left Old Dominion seeking a program that could vault her to the NCAA tournament and a pro career, and she has given the Gophers just as much as she has gotten.
During her brief time in Minnesota, Kelley has become an indispensable member of a team that has gone 23-9 and compiled its best record in a decade. Her 17.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game are second only to Amanda Zahui B. on the Gophers’ roster, and her leadership and wide-ranging skill set helped hold the Gophers together after a season-ending injury to star Rachel Banham.
Kelley said she trusted that her team would adapt when Banham was sidelined in December. Her standout talent, combined with a team-oriented personality, ensured both she and the Gophers got the postseason prize they wanted.
“I’m very excited,’’ said Kelley, who is averaging 23.4 points over the Gophers’ past eight games. “It’s been a dream of mine since freshman year to go to the tournament, to compete in the tournament.
“It’s hard to get into a 64-team field. To be one of those teams is definitely special, and it will be special to be part of that atmosphere, with the fans and the crowd and all the teams. It’s going to be a thrill.’’
Stollings knows the feeling. The first-year Gophers coach was delighted to make Kelley her first signee at the U, beating out schools such as Louisville, LSU and Michigan State for the first-team all-Conference USA pick last season.
Only 35 days after Stollings was hired, before she had any of her staff in place, she signed Kelley. She had a pretty good idea of what she was getting, since she twice faced Kelley and Old Dominion during her coaching tenure at Virginia Commonwealth. Stollings ended up with more than she expected, as Kelley blossomed against higher-caliber competition.
“She gave us athleticism that we really didn’t have, and versatility that we really didn’t have,’’ Stollings said. “She has meant a large portion to everything we’ve done this year, with or without Rachel. If Shae’s not in the mix here, I think you see a very different-looking Gopher team.’’
The Gophers have been projected as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament by espnW’s Charlie Creme. Though they have faltered down the stretch, losing three of their past four games, Kelley and Zahui have continued to provide a one-two punch for an offense that ranks 16th in the nation, averaging 76.3 points per game.
A Colorado native, Kelley originally signed with the University of Colorado but asked for a release when the coach who recruited her was fired. When it was not granted, she went to Northwest Florida State and became a junior college All-America pick. Kelley then played two seasons at Old Dominion, graduating with a degree in sociology last year after surpassing 1,000 points for her career.
Last spring, she decided to move on again, motivated by basketball and by her desire to continue her studies toward a career in social work. Kelley’s 17.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game last season drew plenty of interest, as did her speed, her intelligence and her ability to score from inside or outside.
Stollings saw her as the prototype for the kind of player she wants at the U. Kelley saw the chance to play the uptempo style she likes, with players who impressed her on a campus visit.
“It was a very hard decision to leave [Old Dominion],’’ said Kelley, who is pursuing a master’s degree in youth development leadership. “I had a great two years there. But I thought it would be best for me to branch out and go to a bigger D-I school, and it’s helped me tremendously. It’s pushed my limits.’’
Stollings said she expected the 23-year-old Kelley to naturally be a team leader, based on her age and experience. Kelley adapted quickly to a higher level of play, and when Banham was hurt, she took on more responsibility. By mid-January, Stollings said, Kelley understood what was required in the Big Ten and has continued on an upward trajectory.
Kelley was named first-team all-Big Ten by the media and was selected to the second team by league coaches. She is hoping to play in the WNBA and overseas, and she said she always will remember a special year in Minnesota with the closest team she has ever been part of.
Stollings will remember Kelley, too, every time she looks into the rafters at Williams Arena.
“She helped us hang a banner with the return to the NCAA tournament,’’ she said. “When you hang a banner, we tell our kids, you’re up there for a lifetime. Major credit goes to her for helping us do that.’’