Neuqua Valley freshman Nalia Clifford sprinted down the court and scored on a fast-break layup.
The early third-quarter basket was Clifford’s first of the game, but it wouldn’t be the last for the 5-foot-6 guard, who made three straight shots against Naperville Central on Thursday.
“I think my defense kind of helped me transition into offense,” Clifford said. “Once I got a steal and was able to convert it into a basket, it just kind of flows, and you get on a run.”
Clifford is just beginning what promises to be a long run at Neuqua Valley, which snapped a three-game losing streak by beating the visiting Redhawks 66-61 in a seesaw DuPage Valley Conference game.
Clifford contributed eight points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals. She’s the only freshman in the starting lineup for the Wildcats (5-4, 2-0), but she’s fitting in nicely with senior Tia Poulakidas and juniors Caitlin Washington, Kylee Norkus and Zoe Navarro.
“I thought Nalia did some great things,” Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams said. “Tonight was a big steppingstone for her. She came out and played unbelievable, like she was a veteran.”
Clifford had seven points during a 25-9 run that gave the Wildcats a 51-38 lead. She also scored on a pull-up 3-pointer and a putback, assisted on a Poulakidas basket and had two steals.
“She hustles a lot,” Washington said. “She’s adjusting well, and she’s only going to grow. I had to get on her for the turnovers down the stretch, but she’s only going to keep getting better these next four years.”
Clifford did commit a couple of turnovers as Naperville Central (3-5, 0-2) rallied to tie the game at 56-56 on a basket by Natalie James with 2:26 left. But Poulakidas answered with a jumper off an assist from Navarro, who combined with Washington and Norkus to score Neuqua Valley’s final eight points on free throws.
Washington had 19 points and eight rebounds, Norkus had 18 points and eight boards, and Navarro added 10 points and five assists. The Rochester-bound Poulakidas finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
They’ve all welcomed Clifford into the fold.
“I feel like I learn a lot from them and just by how they see the court and move on offense,” Clifford said. “So it’s a lot of fun playing with them. It makes me a lot better. To be able to have people to pass to and trust, I know they’re going to do something with it and see me when I get open.”
Just how good can Clifford be?
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“I’m going to say ‘great,’ but I’m also going to say, ‘It’s because of my coaching,’” Williams quipped. “She’s going to make some mistakes with some passes that maybe she could get away with before, but that’s pressure. She can get better, so I’m excited.”
So is Clifford, a two-sport athlete who intends to make an impact in a nontraditional sport for girls. She is planning to try out for the freshman baseball team as a shortstop and pitcher.
“My brother played baseball, so I followed him,” Clifford said. “I’ve been going against boys for a while now, but I’ve never really played baseball with anyone who I’ve gone to school with, so that should be interesting.”
So should the basketball season. After three close losses, the Wildcats overcame a huge game from Naperville Central freshman Trinity Jones — who had 22 points, 22 rebounds and five assists — to win a tight one.
“We’ve lost a couple close ones lately, so this is a big win for us,” Clifford said. “This is a good example to follow.”
Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.