Until two weeks ago, Aleah Nelson said she had never scored 30 points in a basketball game. The closest she got to such a milestone was a 29-point effort as an eighth-grader for the Maryland Belles in an AAU tournament final against an All-Star team from Michigan.
Then, on Nov. 12 at North Carolina State, the junior point guard dropped a career-high 39 points to propel Towson to an 87-70 victory over Florida — the program’s first against a Power Five opponent since a 67-55 win against Maryland on Dec. 10, 2009.
“I’ve never had a performance like that,” she said. “But it was because of my teammates that kept encouraging me and were happy for me. It could have been anyone.”
To those who know her, Nelson is simply being modest. The 5-foot-6 Baltimore resident and McDonogh graduate leads the Tigers (4-1) in scoring (20 points per game) and assists (6.6 per game). She also ranks second on the team in total steals with 10 and third in rebounds at 6.0 per game.
“Aleah is a leader,” coach Diane Richardson said. “As she goes, we go, and she understands that. There may be times she might feel a little pressure, but we can give each other the eye that says, ‘It’s OK, let’s go,’ and she’s attuned to all of that.”
Last season — her first at Towson after transferring from Cincinnati — Nelson led the team in assists (6.5 per game) while ranking second in points (13.5 per game) and total steals (27) and ranking sixth in rebounds (4.0 per game). Those numbers helped her earn a spot on the All-Colonial Athletic Association second team.
This winter has been different for Nelson and the Tigers. No longer able to rely on star shooting guard Kionna Jeter, who averaged 23 points per game as a redshirt senior and became the first Towson player to be selected in the WNBA draft in April, Nelson spent the offseason working on creating her own shot and improving her range.
Sophomore power forward Allie Kubek said her teammate’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
“I think her confidence had improved greatly from last year,” Kubek said. “She’s shooting the ball more, and she’s shooting the ball well. I’m not sure what her percentages are, but I know when she’s shooting it, it’s going in.”
With only three seniors on the roster, Nelson is one of the Tigers’ more experienced players. She also has gained more of a comfort level in her second year with the team, which she attributed to developing deeper relationships with Richardson, associate head coach Zach Kancher, assistant coach Cheyenne Curley and acting assistant coach Myles Jackson.
“A lot of times when I’m calling a play, Coach Zach and I are literally calling the same play at the same time, which is kind of cool,” she said. “I think it’s that connection that we have. I’ve been a lot more confident, and it’s because of the coaches. They believe in me, and they trust me, and they always ask about my opinion.”
Richardson said Nelson’s growth as the point guard who sets the tone on offense and defense has been a top priority.
“That was a conversation I had with her last year,” she said. “We want her to be the general on the floor and to be the coach on the floor. She gets to see the circumstances and the situations against defenses. So if she’s attuned to all of that, she can make the calls herself.”
In that game against the Gators when she also had eight rebounds, eight assists and two steals, Nelson’s 39 points eclipsed the building record at North Carolina State’s Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, set by former Wolfpack standout Andrea Stinson against North Carolina on Feb. 12, 1991. Nelson said that performance still surprises her.
“It’s still crazy to think because I didn’t really think about it afterward,” she said. “I wouldn’t describe myself as too cocky. So when it happened, I was just happy, but it was onto the next [game]. … I was just playing and having so much fun because we were beating a Power Five team.”
Nelson is aware that showing will likely make her a focal point of future opponents’ game plans. But she insisted that Towson is more than a one-person team.
“I know that I definitely had to fill that void, and I know that so far, I’ve been doing that, but also Allie has been doing that, and we have our transfers, [North Carolina Central’s] Anissa Rivera and [James Madison’s] Rayne Tucker,” she said. “There’s a lot of scoring and it’s evenly distributed. Whoever is hot is hot that day.”
Kubek said the Tigers will go as far as Nelson leads them.
“I think she’s the head of the snake,” she said. “Whenever she’s doing well, she pushes us to do well. She will get us in check if we’re not doing it right.”
As serious as she is about winning, Nelson hasn’t lost her child-like exuberance. A bundle of energy at practices, she earned the nicknames “Jumping Bean” and “Bean” from Richardson. Nelson said they are her second-favorite nicknames after “Four” used by her father Scott in honor of her jersey number.
Despite her success, Nelson remains unfulfilled. She said she has yet to reach her peak in basketball.
“I feel like I can tap into a whole different level,” she said. “Coach Curley tells me all the time that there are different things I still need to work on like being a leader and being consistent. I feel like I’m not there yet. It’s coming, but I’m not there yet. There are still things that I need to critique and perfect, which I’m excited about.”
Saturday, 2 p.m.