The gesture meant more to Aleah Nelson than her teammates might have realized.
After the Towson women’s basketball team defeated Colonial Athletic Association rival Hofstra, 65-60, on Saturday partly on the strength of Nelson’s 18 points, associate head coach Zach Kancher — filling in for head coach Diane Richardson, who was battling the coronavirus — implored the sophomore point guard to take more shots.
Initially reluctant to heed Kancher’s advice, Nelson said 6-foot-3 senior center LaKaitlin Wright, 6-foot junior forward Narrie Dodson and 6-2 redshirt freshman forward Bianca Glover approached her before Sunday’s rematch against the Pride and pledged to crash the boards after each of her attempts. Emboldened by their conviction, Nelson went 7-for-17 from the field, including 6-for-11 from 3-point range, en route to scoring a career-high 22 points in a 92-64 thrashing.
A day later, Nelson was still touched by her teammates’ deed.
“That right there gave me the most confidence. Now you’ve got me tearing up,” she said as she began sniffling and laughing. “It’s just nice to see that people have my back like that. I have a lot more confidence. So I’m definitely going to shoot the ball a lot more in these upcoming games.”
That self-assurance might be at an all-time high for the 5-6 Nelson, who is enjoying a banner year for the Tigers (7-3, 2-1 CAA). The Baltimore resident and McDonogh graduate leads the team and the conference in assists (7.0 per game) and 3-point percentage (. 489).
Nelson also ranks fourth in the league in free-throw percentage (. 839), eighth in points (14.7 per game) and 10th in field-goal percentage (. 476). She has registered double doubles in wins against La Salle (12 points and 10 assists) and Morgan State (14 points, 11 assists).
Nelson’s success does not shock Eagles coach Brad Rees, who has known his former player since he noticed her as a sixth grader on the Maryland Belles club team.
“I think it’s a perfect match,” he said of Nelson’s fit with Towson. “They play an up-tempo, guard-oriented game. They like people who can shoot the 3. I think Aleah has really developed as a point guard. She’s leading the league in assists. She’s making that conversion from more of a scoring guard to a run-the-offense-type pure point guard who still has the ability to knock down the three and score some points.”
Nelson’s emergence with the Tigers actually began at a different destination. After wrapping up a high school career in 2019 that included ranking second in McDonogh history in career points (1,322) and assists (364), fifth in career steals (294) and first in career 3-pointers (204), she eschewed Towson in favor of Cincinnati, which hired coach Michelle Clark-Heard one year before Nelson’s arrival.
As a freshman, Nelson appeared in 27 games, averaging 9.6 minutes, 1.3 points, 1.1 rebounds and 1.0 assists. But privately, she chafed at the Bearcats’ post-oriented offense, and despite her respect for Heard and her chemistry with her teammates, requested a transfer, which was granted.
“I think with the different style of play and different expectations, she just never felt quite at home there,” said Rees, who has remained close with Nelson.
On the night of March 23, Nelson announced she was entering the transfer portal. Thirty minutes later, she said she received a call from Kancher, who helped coach Nelson’s AAU team.
“As soon as I hit that portal, he called me up and was like, ‘Hey, I see you hit the portal. What are you doing? What can we do to get you into Towson gear?’” she recalled.
Nelson said she needed only 48 hours to pick the Tigers over Xavier, Elon and North Florida before making her decision official March 27.
“I am actually very grateful that they still wanted to take that chance on me even though I didn’t take their offer the first time,” she said. “So I feel like this was my time to come here.”
Replacing Baltimore resident and Milford Mill graduate Qierra Murray as the team’s starting point guard, Nelson’s fondness for up-tempo offense found a soul mate in redshirt senior Kionna Jeter, the two-time All-CAA first-team selection who could be chosen in the 2021 WNBA draft. Jeter is averaging a career-high 24.7 points, and Towson is No. 1 in transition offense in the country, according to Synergy Sports.
“I love playing with Aleah,” Jeter said after a 96-59 rout of Morgan State on Dec. 20. “She’s fast, and she pushes the ball, and she knows the right calls and the right timing of everything. She’s just a great point guard.”
Added Nelson:“I think Kionna and I play well together. It’s a good 1-2 punch. I know that if she’s not scoring, then it’s me, and if I’m not scoring, then it’s her. But she also helps me contribute to making that one more pass so that she can make the shot. We have a good backcourt duo going on right now.”
One measure of the respect Nelson has generated from Richardson and her teammates is that she and junior shooting guard Shavonne Smith are the only underclassmen among the five team captains, and Nelson is the only sophomore.
Richardson, who has emphasized playing at breakneck speeds, indicated that targeting Nelson as a transfer was intentional.
“Our job and our goal as a staff was to go out and add pieces that could work well together,” she said after the Morgan State win. “I think we’ve accomplished that with the players that we have on the team. Everybody is a contributor, and [Jeter and Nelson] love playing with each other. It’s a good feeling, the culture’s great, the locker room’s great, and it’s a pleasure to coach them.”
As well as Nelson is playing this winter, Kancher said he believes that Nelson is just scratching the surface of her potential.
“Aleah doesn’t realize how good she is,” he said after the first game against Hofstra on Saturday. “This is a kid who today had 18 points on eight shots, 3-of-5 from 3, seven assists, and three turnovers, and she is still reluctant to shoot the ball when she’s open. I think part of that is, she’s a sophomore and she didn’t get a ton of playing time last year at Cincinnati. Here, it’s like, ‘You’ve got the ball, so go do your thing. Go shoot the ball.’”
Nelson said she is grateful for the support of her coaches and teammates.
“With where I was last year just not playing a lot and now coming here and doing what I knew I could do and having a coaching staff that believes in me, it’s very meaningful,” she said. “I’m having so much fun playing and being with teammates who I love and care about. They give me so much confidence, but the most meaningful part about it is, I knew I could do this when in first got out of high school. I knew I could be this player. It just took a coaching staff to believe in me and let me play my game. Of course, I had to be coachable and stuff, but for a coaching staff to let me do what I know I can do, that’s what I think is the most meaningful thing.”
Rees, who has watched many of Nelson’s game online, said his former player has grown immensely.
“I think she’s become a much better leader as she has matured over the years,” he said. “She’s matured into her skill level, and I think now at Towson, she has found a really nice role that she can play for that program.”
Despite her performances, Nelson said she still senses some doubts about her ability to maintain her efficiency for a full season. So she will not be content until she can help the Tigers capture their second CAA tournament championship in three seasons.
“I’m not going to say I’ve proven myself until we get that championship,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot more I can prove. Some people could say, ‘Oh, she had one good game.’ Or, ‘Oh, she had a good stretch.’ So I want to prove myself by leading this team to the CAA championship. That’s the goal, and that’s when I feel like I will have proven myself.”