ANCHORAGE - University of Alaska Anchorage senior guard Tanya Nizich is a dangerous weapon for the Seawolves' offense.
Whenever teams collapse on the Seawolf forwards in the paint, Nizich's job is to find open space on the perimeter for a 3-point shot. When she hits them - and Nizich, a Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, just moved into third place for most 3-pointers on UAA's career rankings - it opens up room for the forwards to work.
At this week's women's Great Alaska Shootout, Nizich was a weapon that wasn't needed during Tuesday's 61-59 victory over Mount St. Mary's. She took and made just one shot as she finished with three points, three rebounds and a blocked shot.
But in Wednesday's championship game against Clemson, the Seawolves needed to call on their long-range gunner. Nizich earned player-of-the-game honors and a spot on the all-tournament team as she scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out two assists to lead the Seawolves to a 61-58 victory over the Tigers.
It was the first time UAA won its own tournament since 1990, when the tourney was called the Northern Lights Invitational. It's only the third time nationally an NCAA Division II team has won a tournament against Division I teams - twice by the UAA women and last year by the University of Alaska Fairbanks men.
"This feels great, it's awesome," Nizich said. "This is exactly what I dreamed of the last couple of years."
"Tanya has it in her to be one of the best guards in the conference," new UAA coach Jody Hensen said. "She's strong, she can handle the ball and she shoots well. Sometimes it's just getting her to believe in it."
After watching her team struggle for victories during her first three seasons, Nizich and the rest of the Seawolves (4-0) have bought into the new attitude of Hensen's program. Last season UAA won just 11 games, and the Seawolves won only five the season before that.
Hensen is a former Homer High School player who played college basketball at Northern Arizona. Before taking the UAA job, she was widely considered one of the top assistant coaches in the country after stints with New Mexico, Clemson, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and both the UAA men and women.
She brings a heightened intensity to the team, and her practices have already become legend around UAA's campus. Clemson coach Jim Davis, who mentored Hensen from 1999-2002, said the term they used to describe her was "jut-jawed" because of her drive. During the 2-hour-long practices, players are in constant motion, running almost the entire time. She's even hired a couple of male practice players to help prepare the Seawolves for when they face taller and more athletic teams.
Hensen said she's been especially hard on Nizich, who didn't start either Shootout game although she played key roles in both victories.
"I'm hard on Tanya because I have such high expectations for her," Hensen said. "She's way capable of being one of the best. When you know she has that in her, you want to make sure she wants it."
"She's pushing me, but I know I need to be pushed," said Nizich, who compared the practices to some that former Juneau-Douglas High School coach Jim Hamey ran for the Crimson Bears. "I know she has confidence in me, and that gives me more confidence. I'm just trying to get my intensity level up."
One of the benefits of Hensen's conditioning program was evident during the two Shootout games, which both game down to the final seconds. Nizich made key plays in the game's last minute that didn't show up in the boxscore but helped her team win.
In Tuesday's game, Nizich grabbed a big defensive rebound with 40 seconds left and, with 2 seconds left, she set the screen that left Kamie Jo Massey so wide open for the game-winning shot the nearest person was a photographer on press row. On Wednesday, she set a screen for Amber Nasby with 24 seconds left that let Nasby put UAA on top. And, since UAA wasn't in the bonus yet, Nizich ran halfway across the court to purposefully commit a foul with 3.6 seconds left so Clemson was forced to inbounds the ball again.
"She's in the best shape of her life," Hensen said of Nizich. "That helps you have your wits about you in the last four minutes."
"My shot wasn't there. I didn't have any looks," Nizich said of Tuesday's game, when Mount St. Mary's guard Adrienne Harris played so close to Nizich she practically wore the same uniform. "She definitely was up close and personal with me. I didn't get any looks, so I took advantage of what I could do by setting the hardest screens I've ever set."
Davis said UAA's screens were a big reason the Seawolves won the championship. He also complimented Nizich on her shooting, which included five 3-pointers. For this tournament, the 3-point arc was set for the international distance of 20 feet, 6 inches, instead of the usual college distance of 19-9.
"No. 11 (Nizich) shot the ball very well, you've got to give her credit," Davis said. "Most of the 3s came because we didn't handle the screens very well. They screened us very well. They were the best screening team tonight, and those screeners should get 1 1/2 points out of every 3."
Nizich leaves the Shootout with a tournament champion watch, an all-tournament team gold pan, an ulu for player-of-the-game honors and bunch of confidence for the rest of the season.
"This is amazing. I don't think I'll sleep tonight," Nizich said after greeting her parents and a group of fans from Juneau.
"I'd like to go out giving it everything I've got and playing every game like it's my last game. I just wish I had a few more seasons with Jody."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.