Marshall's Approach Nia Marshall '17

Nia Marshall was struggling.

She was trying to force her way through double-teams. She was settling for outside shots. She was fading away when she should have been attacking the basket.

This was not the 6-foot forward that fans of the Big Red women’s basketball team had become accustomed to seeing. She wasn’t showing the range and versatility, the explosive speed, or the skill around the rim, which had been the hallmarks of her first three seasons on East Hill.

Marshall entered her senior year expecting to challenge Cornell’s all-time career scoring record of 1,650 points. She needed to average just over 14 points per game to take the top spot, and after averaging more than 16 points in each of the previous two seasons, the record was there for the taking.

But she was in a slump.

She was still putting up numbers most players would be proud to have – hitting double-digits in four of the first five games of the season – but her average of 12.2 points per game was well below her career mark. And those points weren’t coming easy. Through the first five games of the season, she was shooting just over 30 percent from the floor, an abysmal performance for a player that has a career shooting percentage north of 45 percent.

“I think anytime a player has a major accomplishment out there waiting for them to go capture, there can be some self-induced pressure,” says Dayna Smith, the Rebecca Quinn Morgan ’60 Head Coach of Cornell Women’s Basketball. “You could see it on her. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for her, Nia has been the go-to player and she’s put up big points. Sometimes that becomes a heavy burden.”

Luckily for the Big Red, others shouldered more of the scoring load. Thanks to senior guards Megan LeDuc, Kerri Moran, and Taylor DePalma – all three of whom are scoring above their career averages – Cornell got off to a 4-1 record for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

But Coach Smith knew something needed to change. Not only was Marshall struggling, but the team’s stable of eight freshmen were trying to find their roles on an upper class-laden team.

“All players, even great players, go through slumps,” says Smith. “She just wasn’t letting things come to her and she was focusing on the wrong thing. We didn’t pull her aside because we didn’t want her thinking about the record, but we addressed the team because she wasn’t the only one that needed to hear it. After the Howard game, we said, ‘If your points aren’t there, you’re fortunate to play a sport where you can do more than one thing to help. You can rebound, play defense, be the person that sets a great screen, make an assist.’ And I think she understood that the comments pertained to a lot of people, but she took it to heart.”

In the very next game, Marshall posted 21 points – which was a season-high at that point – against ACC power Pitt, connecting on half of her shots (8-of-16), to go along with six rebounds, three steals and two assists.

“I think in the beginning of the season the record was on my mind and it really affected how I played,” says Marshall. “I was overthinking it. I spent a lot of time talking to my parents, and my dad kept saying to just enjoy my senior year and play the game I love regardless of records. I think it finally resonated starting the Pitt game.”

Marshall has always loved the game of basketball. She began playing when she was 6 years old, and one of her fondest memories is winning a knockout drill and having her coach hoist her up on his shoulders in celebration.

From that moment on, she was hooked on basketball.

Over the years, basketball has become the thing she most looks forward to each day as a form of stress relief. At Cornell, it has become her refuge from the rigors of an Ivy League education. A biology and society major with aspirations of becoming a doctor, Marshall uses basketball practice as a time to take a break from her academic pursuits.

“Basketball is my outlet,” she says. “It is so stressful to be at an Ivy League school, where being extraordinary is normalized. I think I’m so successful because I just play the game that I love and have fun with my teammates. [At the start of the season] I think I got away from that. I was pressuring myself into doing things I normally wouldn’t do because of the record. Now I think I’m fine.”

In addition to playing for love, and not the record, Marshall has fallen back on the lessons she learned playing golf for Hathaway Brown School, one of the premier private schools in Ohio.

She picked up the sport in eighth grade, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Shamira, who was encouraged to play golf by the girls’ paternal grandmother, Bernadine. The family matriarch placed tremendous value on education and had the foresight to see that sports could be a vehicle to better opportunities.

Shamira, who went on to help Kent State win four consecutive MAC Golf Championships, was the state runner-up in 2007 with Hathaway Brown and it was her reputation, coupled with the younger Marshall’s outstanding grades in her advanced classes at Nordonia Middle School that persuaded the Blazers’ golf coach, Paul Barlow, to sponsor her admission.

Nia went on to help HB win the 2010 state championship in golf, and fortunately for Barlow, who doubled as the girls’ basketball coach, she helped the Blazers to three consecutive Division II state championships on the hardwood.

“I know some people get upset because I don’t show emotion, but that’s what you’re taught as a golfer,” explains Marshall. “When I was little, I was very hot-headed and I would get upset really easily, but I used golf to change that. When you make a mistake you have to forget about it and go on to the next shot. You can’t let it get to your head in golf or in basketball, because it just ruins the whole game.”

For Coach Smith, an emotional person that likes to see “the fire and excitement that people show,” Marshall’s laid back demeanor has been a challenge.

Marshall recorded her 1,000th career point vs. Binghamton on Dec. 30, 2015, going 15-of-16 from the field, tying the school record for field goals made in a single game, and also tying for 10th all-time in NCAA history for the highest single game shooting percentage (.938).

“There are days it really benefits her and I like that,” says Smith. “I love the fact that she can just move on. But there were times throughout her career that we were trying to get her to be more emotional on the court, but she’s just not that. She cares a lot, but that fire that’s in her is not something that she wears on her sleeve. As a coach that’s something I had to learn. You don’t see a golfer getting fired up for every nice shot they make. She’s introspective. That goes a long way for her. It wouldn’t work for everybody, but it works for her.”

In true golfer fashion, Marshall has moved on from the slump. She’s back on pace to break the scoring mark and with her collegiate career winding down, she has shifted her focus from the record, to just playing the game she loves and appreciating the time she gets to spend with her teammates.

“I’ve realized that if I get the record, that’s great, but if I don’t I still think I’ve made an impact on the program. And more importantly, I’ve made some of the best friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

Credits:

Patrick Shanahan; Darl Zehr; Hathaway Brown School; Julie Greco

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