DeKALB – Those who hadn’t left the court congregated at one end. Practice was over. Time to relax, chat, wait for another day.
But Northern Illinois senior guard Courtney Shelton wasn’t finished. She grabbed a basketball off the rack and walked to the court’s empty end. Repetitively, she toed the free-throw line, aimed for the hoop and released.
“It’s definitely a different mindset, just because it’s senior year,” Shelton said afterward. “You want to get everything you can out of it.”
Shelton will get her chance. NIU’s offense is motion-based, different than when former guard Marke Freeman handled the basketball and made plays last winter. A season after Shelton’s 35.8 percent three-point shooting would have qualified for sixth in the Mid-American Conference had she taken more threes, one of the main ingredients is her jump shooting.
When Shelton’s shot is falling, the Huskies’ offense should run smoothly. On nights it’s not – such as Shelton’s 0-for-7 performance in Tuesday’s exhibition loss to NAIA school Indiana Wesleyan – it likely will be stagnant.
“We’re trying to get a lot of motion in our offense, and with this year’s offense it gives you the opportunity to just run with it and do kind of what we want, just read off screens,” Shelton said. “I love that kind of stuff, just coming off [screens] and kind of hunting my shot. So I think it’s a good offense for me to be in.”
Shelton averaged 7.6 points per game last season when she wasn’t the offense’s focal point, but another statistic means more. Her 31.43 minutes per game was among the top 20 in the MAC and second on the team behind Freeman. With Freeman and Ebony Ellis’ departures, NIU has only one other player (senior Kim Davis) who averaged more than 30 minutes.
Last season was Davis’ first on the team. This is Shelton’s fourth winter in the rotation.
“When you really look at our roster, it’s like, ‘Wow, she is the one player who has experience,’ ” coach Kathi Bennett said. “So she knows what it’s about and can lead [younger players] in that direction. And she’s done such a nice job of that.”
Shelton takes that job as seriously as anything else she does for the program. She looks around the court during practices and sees a lot of new faces, players who are about to begin their first season.
Watching Shelton in practice, Bennett said she knows her senior leader is dedicated to filling that role.
“Her basketball IQ is just so good,” Bennett said. “And I feel like, from a leadership standpoint, just her ability to direct and explain and show why, I think she’s so good at that. She’s really helped our young players with trying to understand how to play because she knows how to play. We have a lot to learn, and Courtney makes the difference for us in that learning process.
“Certain things happen on the court. When we’re moving the ball, you can always here her [say], ‘One more.’ And that tells the player on [the point] that if she goes and rotates it one more pass, you’re going to have a wide-, wide-open look. So she’s always thinking a pass ahead, or moving people to where they should be.”
Many times, one more pass will allow the basketball to end up in Shelton’s hands for a wide-open shot. That’s why she’s getting her extra reps, refining her shooting stroke for one last season.
After a couple minutes of solitary work, her teammates at the opposite end also started heading for the basketball rack. If teammates continue to follow Shelton’s lead, Bennett expects a successful season.
“I’m in kind of just more of a teaching role,” Shelton said, describing the difference between this offseason and last winter. “We have a lot of young kids, and you want to come in and try to teach them what coach Bennett is trying to show us. I’ve been through it before, so I know the ropes. You try to teach the young kids that.”