Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman
Down by 12 points at halftime to No. 11 Ohio State on Jan. 3, 2017, Northwestern needed a momentum shift. Quickly.
A win over the highly-ranked Buckeyes would not only give the Wildcats a 3-0 conference start, but a big boost to their 2017 NCAA Tournament resume. Somebody had to step up.
But it wasn’t forward Nia Coffey — a four-time All-Big Ten First Team honoree — or guard Ashley Deary, the eventual Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. And it wasn’t sophomore guard Amber Jamison, the Cats’ leading shooter from behind the arc.
Instead, it was an unknown freshman forward: Abi Scheid. She drained two 3-pointers that sparked a 14-4 third-quarter run for NU that cut Ohio State’s lead to two.
The small-town Minnesota native playing in only her 16th game in a Cats uniform went on to score a season-high 20 points. Scheid — who spent her entire basketball career up to her freshman season in Evanston as a center — claims she shot less than 10 3-pointers in high school. Yet on that Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, she nailed all four of her triples.
“We weren’t looking at her as a pure 3-point shooter,” coach Joe McKeown said. “But after that game, I was like, ‘Maybe we’re missing something here. Maybe we should get her more shots and get her on the floor more.’”
More than three years later, Scheid is the top 3-point shooter in the nation. On the season, Scheid has nailed 72 triples at a 48.6 percent clip, averaged 11.8 points per game and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team by Big Ten coaches Monday.
As Scheid and No. 11 NU head to Indianapolis this weekend as the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the senior will be relied on for her long-range prowess. Over the Cats’ recent nine-game win streak, she has shot better than 50 percent from deep.
Coming from a town of around 23,000 people, the three-time captain never thought she would dominate from behind the arc.
But things change.
“I know that if I put my mind to anything, I can achieve it,” Scheid said.
Finding her shot
Scheid began playing basketball in third grade in Elk River — a town nearly 34 miles from Minneapolis — and from the start, Scheid was always the tallest player on her team. So she began to mold her game into the position that best suited her height: center.
Playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball as a 6-foot seventh-grader, coaches took notice of Scheid’s skills as a five. When she entered Elk River High School in the fall of 2012, she was immediately called up to the varsity team by coach Reed Caouette.
During her freshman and sophomore seasons, Scheid crashed the boards and controlled the post as a dominating force in Elk River’s frontcourt. Caouette said Scheid had an incredible work ethic that made her a dynamic threat from behind the arc.
“It was Abi’s hard work,” Caouette said. “She wanted to become a better shooter and she worked hard at it.”
Already a strong free-throw shooter, Scheid improved her range by working on 3-pointers in the summer before her junior year. Her practice quickly translated, as she nailed “four or five” triples in the second game of the season, according to Caouette. Throughout the year, he recognized Scheid’s potential as a dual threat and gave her opportunities to shoot the 3-ball in transition as the trailer.
But Scheid rarely shot from deep, even though defenders seldom stepped out to guard her at the 3-point line. Instead, she chose to beat opponents in the paint.
But every now-and-then, Scheid would nail a triple. In a sectional semifinal against Rogers High School, Scheid scored 40 points — with three of them coming from behind the arc — as she broke the Elk River single-game scoring record.
“She certainly had the green light to shoot it from the perimeter,” Caouette said.
Committing to NU
Heading into her senior year, Scheid had the attention of numerous programs outside the Gopher State as a four-star recruit and the 66th-best player in ESPN’s Class of 2016. Programs like North Dakota State and South Dakota State had been recruiting her since freshman year. But those schools quickly fell out of contention as Scheid averaged 18.3 points and 10.3 rebounds her junior season and received an All-State Honorable Mention.
Numerous programs recruited Scheid to play center. But the Cats had other ideas for the Minnesota native. McKeown and assistant coach Shauna Green — now the head coach at Dayton — didn’t want Scheid to play exclusively in the post.
They wanted her to shoot, an evaluation that greatly intrigued Scheid. NU’s coaches said she would become a stretch-four to maximize her 3-point promise and post abilities.
“(McKeown) told me about how he wants me to stretch out to the arc and how it’s going to develop if I commit to Northwestern,” Scheid said. “So yeah. I was up for the challenge.”
Scheid committed to the Cats on Sep. 30, 2015. Off the court, she was drawn to NU because of its academic rigor. Additionally, she felt Evanston would give her a unique college experience that greatly differed from her upbringing in Elk River.
“If I went to Minnesota, I would’ve never left because all my family is there,” Scheid said. “I’m glad I branched out and put myself in an uncomfortable position.”
Acclimating to Evanston
When she arrived on campus as a freshman, Scheid was in a unique position — she was no longer the team’s tallest player. Senior forward/center Allie Tuttle, junior center Oceana Hamilton and fellow freshman Abbie Wolf stood at 6-foot-4, two inches taller than Scheid. As a result, she permanently moved to the power forward position.
Scheid, who used summer practice and a team exhibition tour of France to work on her shooting, made an immediate impression on her teammates.
“Freshman year, we did shooting challenges like making five (3-pointers) from a spot,” Wolf said. “There are multiple times I saw her make five in a row like it was nothing. You knew she was going to be a shooter.”
Additionally, Scheid got the attention of Coffey, the team’s star player, in a big way.
During a scrimmage, Coffey — who less than a year later would be the fifth pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft — couldn’t stop Scheid from scoring.
“I was screaming at Nia like ‘Are you going to play defense today?’” McKeown said. “Nia is a pretty good defensive player, but Scheid is a lot better now. That practice… was an a-ha moment for me.”
Coffey — a fellow Minnesota native — took Scheid under her wing throughout the season. She helped the freshman understand the team’s plays and assisted her in reading opposing defenses and coming off ball screens.
To improve her shot, Scheid worked primarily with NU’s coaches. McKeown and his assistants expanded her range through shooting drills from various spots on the 3-point line. Additionally, they worked on Scheid’s dribbling and passing skills — as well as her ability to use screens in “pick-and-pop situations” — so she could become a well-rounded offensive player.
“I was really out of my comfort zone,” Scheid said. “But that’s what pushed me to want to get better and dominate that position.”
Evolving as a Wildcat
Scheid remembers one of the first moments where she started to gain the confidence to shoot from deep in games.
Even eleven days after her break-out game against the Buckeyes, the Minnesota native was still apprehensive to pull up from behind the arc. Playing at home against Indiana, Scheid remembers getting the ball wide open behind the arc and hearing her teammates yell at her to shoot from the bench.
Instead of immediately shooting, Scheid looked to pass first. When she found no one open, she finally built up the confidence to shoot the three — and it went through the net.
That shot erased all the doubts in her mind.
“I was definitely a little hesitant,” Scheid said. “But I finally started to build that confidence once I saw the (3-pointers) going in. Building confidence was my freshman year.”
Making only 12 3-pointers and averaging nearly 20 minutes per game, Scheid had a small role on the roster her freshman year. In her sophomore campaign, Scheid’s shooting percentage dropped, but her offensive performance improved, as she attempted 116 triples and averaged a career-high 12 points per game.
The 2017-18 campaign was tough for NU, as the team only mustered four conference wins while playing their home games at Evanston Township High School because of renovations at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Scheid — in her first year as a team captain — led the team through numerous trials, such as an eight-game losing streak.
McKeown said the Minnesota native’s leadership skills greatly developed during the season, causing teammates to respect her humble nature on and off the court.
“It was a tough year and she really stepped up,” McKeown said. “We needed younger players to take ownership in this team.”
Making her mark
During her junior season — in which NU made a run to the WNIT Championship — Scheid fired 128 shots from deep, yet missed most of January with an injury.
So heading into her senior season, Scheid wanted to improve her form after shooting worse than 40 percent from behind the arc the past two seasons. She added a quick release on her shot for better timing and accuracy and practiced triples from a couple feet behind the 3-point line to become more consistent.
These changes have helped Scheid become the nation’s best 3-point shooter and the Cats’ second-leading scorer. Scheid has shot 50 percent or better from behind the arc in 16 games this season. Against Penn State, she shot 6-for-6 from behind the arc and topped 1,000 career points.
“She’s the ultimate mismatch,” Wolf said. “If there’s a big who can’t move, she’ll be at the 3-point line making threes in their face or driving by them. (She) will put a smaller guard in the post. There’s really nobody in the country that can guard her.”
If there’s one thing Scheid hates most, it’s failing. So after playing a bad game, she responds in the only way she knows how: by working harder.
Scheid hits the gym, working on shots or moves that she got wrong in games before closely analyzing her mistakes in the film room.
And then, she erases the performance from her mind.
“One of the hardest lessons is keeping your confidence when you fail,” Scheid said. “But knowing what you can do and your potential is such a big part of being successful.”
These principles guide Scheid as a captain. She sometimes shoots 100 3-pointers before practice, hoping to set an example for her teammates. While training, she is a vocal leader, unafraid to call out her teammates for lacking effort.
Senior Byrdy Galernik — Scheid’s roommate — says the tenacity that drives Scheid as a leader makes Wildcats proud to play with her.
“Scheid’s really important to our team,” Galernik said. “She’s a three-time captain and has a strong leadership role on our team. And we’ve been able to help her out.”
Leaving a legacy
On Leap Day, celebration ensued at Welsh-Ryan Arena as NU clinched a share of the Big Ten Championship for the first time since the 1989-90 season. After scoring 10 points against Illinois, all Scheid could do was smile as she celebrated with teammates and hugged family members amid purple-and-white streamers. When the Cats gathered a few minutes later for a team photo, the Championship trophy rested on Scheid’s knee, symbolizing her status as one of NU’s most important players.
And she is. Scheid is on pace for the fourth-best 3-point percentage in conference history and has shredded opposing defenses all season.
But beginning this weekend, all the records and percentages Scheid has achieved will move to the side. With the conference tournament and March Madness starting in the near future, Scheid knows she can’t be distracted.
Not by the thought of maintaining the best 3-point percentage in the nation. Not by the potential of possibly avenging January’s loss to No.1 Maryland in the Big Ten Championship. And not by the excitement of where her future in basketball lies.
“That is in the back of my mind,” Scheid said. “I want to focus on finishing the season strong. But I mean, it’s hard not to think about the potential for after college play.”
McKeown believes Scheid can flourish at the next level because of her unique ability to stretch defenses around the 3-point line. But her coach’s thoughts are for another day.
The spotlight in Indianapolis will certainly be on Scheid, one of the key catalysts for NU’s program-record 26 wins this season. McKeown believes Scheid’s presence from behind the arc will be her Evanston legacy for years to come. But over the next month, he has the feeling that the former center from small-town Minnesota will add to her legend.
“There’s a reason they call it March Madness,” McKeown said. “It’s when great players are put on a big stage. She can handle that. We can depend on her.”
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