Women’s Basketball: The evolution of Northwestern star Nia Coffey


Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Nia Coffey goes up for a shot. The junior forward is looking to lead the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament, where they made their first appearance since 1997 last season.

Will Ragatz, Reporter

Women’s Basketball

Nia Coffey used to dream about being a track star.

In a family that was all about basketball, she was the outlier. Her father, Richard, played in college at Minnesota and professionally, and both of her siblings were on basketball teams as soon as they could pick up a ball.

Coffey, the middle child, took a bit longer.

Her innate athleticism made her an outstanding runner. As a seventh grader, Coffey ran for the varsity track team at Hopkins High School in Minneapolis. However, something just didn’t feel right about track, she said.

“I found it really lonely,” Coffey said. “I would always see my dad and brother and sister going to the gym and I wouldn’t go because I wasn’t a basketball player.”

Eventually, Coffey said, they were able to convince her to come with them. She hasn’t looked back since.

A humble star

Coffey, now a star forward heading into her junior season for Northwestern, has already had an incredibly successful basketball career. She received countless individual accolades while playing at Hopkins and was recently named to the 2015-16 Preseason All-Big Ten Team.

However, Coffey has never been one to brag about personal accomplishments. Her modesty is one of the first things coach Joe McKeown mentions when talking about her.

“She’s the most humble great player I’ve ever seen,” McKeown said.

Senior guard Maggie Lyon, Coffey’s teammate for the past two seasons, agrees.

“She sometimes doesn’t give herself enough credit,” Lyon said. “She’s always trying to make her teammates better. … I’m blessed that I get to play with her, not against her.”

Immediate success

Coffey’s athleticism transferred to basketball as soon as she started playing, helping her make Hopkins’ varsity team in eighth grade, her first year of playing seriously.
More than 1,400 points and three state championships later, the former sprinter found herself as the top ranked basketball recruit in Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, her dad’s alma mater, recruited her heavily, but Coffey said she felt like she had to leave home.

“For me to grow, I needed to go somewhere else,” she said.

Coffey wanted to go somewhere where she could not only star on the basketball court, but also get a great education, she said. McKeown said he recruited her to come to Northwestern because of her team success, in addition to her natural talent.

“She knew how to win,” McKeown said. “She came from a program where, when you walk on the court, you expect to win. She brings that with her.”

When she first visited Evanston, Coffey said she was won over by how welcoming and loving the team was and how comfortable she felt. She also saw a team with a lot of talented young players.

“I understood that Northwestern was creating something special and I just wanted to be a part of that,” Coffey said.

Once Coffey got to NU, she didn’t waste any time making an impact.

Through the years

As a freshman, Coffey led NU in points and rebounds and became the first Wildcat freshman to ever be selected to the All-Big Ten First Team. Last year, she went a step further.

Averaging 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, Coffey led the Cats to a 23-9 season and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1997. It was an incredible season for Coffey, but it ended in heartbreak. In NU’s first round matchup against Arkansas, Coffey missed a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds, ending NU’s season.

Coffey described the tournament experience as bittersweet, but believes it will help the team in the long run.

“We know what to expect and how hard it is to advance in the tournament, and what we need to do to make sure we go further this time,” Coffey said.

Both McKeown and Lyon have seen huge improvements in Coffey’s game from her freshman year to now. Naturally an unselfish player, Coffey is starting to realize she can dominate games, her coach said.

“Every now and then she’s like ‘Well, I gotta take this game over, let’s go,’” McKeown said. “She understands that she’s capable of that.”

“When a big play needs to happen, she’ll take it upon herself, and she’s really stepped up in that way,” Lyon said.

Coffey’s basketball IQ has expanded even more than just knowing when she needs to make a play, her coach said. McKeown said he sees a difference in how Coffey tries to make potentially game-changing plays.

“She’s so smart now,” he said. “She’s pulling up (for jump shots), blocking shots without fouling people, and she’s still a great rebounder, maybe the best in the conference. She’s a lot smarter about how teams are defending her, and that’s been her biggest growth to me.”

Looking ahead

Sent with Lyon to represent NU at this year’s Big Ten Basketball Media Day, Coffey’s hunger for the season to start was undeniable.

“We’re not satisfied with what we did last year,” Coffey said. “What we did was great for Northwestern because we haven’t been to the tournament in forever, but that, at the end of the day, wasn’t enough for us.”

Expectations are high heading into this season. NU was recently ranked 12th in the country in Athlon Sports Magazine’s preseason poll. Coffey said the team’s goals are to win the Big Ten and make a deep NCAA tournament run.

“I feel like we can do whatever we put our minds to, I truly do.”

Although everyone on the team will contribute, how far NU goes will ultimately depend on how good its star player can be this season. Coffey is ready for the challenge.

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Twitter: @WillRagatz