It's only three games into University of Alaska Anchorage women's basketball season, and sophomore Tanya Nizich's role has already changed.
Nizich, a 2000 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, began the season coming off the bench. But since leading the team in scoring in UAA's 68-51 season-opening loss to Christian Heritage College on Nov. 12, Nizich's earned a spot in the starting lineup. She ranks second on the team in scoring with 11.7 points a game for the 1-2 Seawolves.
"It definitely makes me feel a lot more confident starting rather than subbing in," Nizich said by phone after UAA's 98-45 loss to Gonzaga Tuesday night in the opening round of the women's Great Alaska Shootout. "I'm in the flow right from the start. I don't have to come in, figuring out who I'm guarding and what offense we're running."
The Seawolves lost all five of their starters from last year's 13-14 season, and when UAA opened play last week, there were only eight healthy bodies for head coach Brandi Dunigan to pick from.
In the team's opener against Christian Heritage, Nizich didn't enter the game until it was four minutes old. But the first time Nizich touched the ball, she drained a 3-pointer. She struggled with her shooting later in the first half, but found her range in the second half and posted a career-high 14 points as UAA's only scorer in double figures.
In UAA's rematch with Christian Heritage on Nov. 13, Nizich again scored a team-high 14 points and added a career-high five rebounds as UAA won 67-54. It was Nizich first collegiate start, and she made the most of it by hitting two quick jumpers to give UAA a 5-0 lead.
"She brings a lot of experience for us," Dunigan said of Nizich after UAA's opener. "Hopefully she'll be a leader on the team. She played well and did what she was supposed to be doing."
"I think the season's going to be good," Nizich said. "We've got a great team, it's just that it's a young team."
In her freshman season, Nizich usually came off the bench as she averaged 2.3 points. She had five games where she didn't see any action, and her career high was six points in two games.
Some of her limited production last year can be attributed to being a freshman coming onto a senior-laden team, but a knee injury in Nizich's senior year at JDHS also played a role in her slow start at the college level. Nizich tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in a late regular-season game and had surgery after the season. During the first half of last season at UAA, Nizich wore a heavy brace on her right knee and finally got rid of it in January.
"The knee hampered her last year," Dunigan said. "But she focused on getting better."
"I'm definitely a lot quicker than last year," said Nizich, who added that she did speed drills all summer to strengthen her leg. "I was very scared something was going to happen to the knee last year. This year I'm moving up and down the floor better, and I'm faster side to side on defense."
In Tuesday's opener of the Great Alaska Shootout, the Seawolves couldn't handle NCAA Division I Gonzaga's press and turned the ball over 30 times. Nizich only scored four points as UAA fell behind 44-18 at halftime and never threatened. Bell Jordan scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Seawolves, while Ashley Burke led Gonzaga with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
"We just didn't come out ready to play and that team (Gonzaga) was bigger and faster than we were," Nizich said. "They pressured us and we shut down. We need to set screens and get people open. We're a young team, but we need to execute."
The Seawolves will play Marquette in today's 2:30 p.m. consolation game at Sullivan Arena. Gonzaga will play Iowa in today's 5 p.m. women's championship game of the Shootout. Lindsey Meder and Jerica Watson both scored 16 points as Iowa beat Marquette 69-54 in Tuesday's other game. Iowa's two Alaska players -- senior Leah Magner of Colony High and senior Beatrice Bullock of Service -- both started but struggled in their return to their home state, combining for just three points.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.