By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- Kenny Brooks couldn't believe what he was seeing.
When the JMU women's basketball coach first saw Nikki Newman shooting when she arrived at the school over four years ago, he was amazed -- but not in a good way.
"It was the most puzzling look I've ever had on my face, because I didn't know how she was getting the ball up there -- I didn't," Brooks said of the first time he saw Newman shoot. "It was one of the most unorthodox things I've ever seen."
Now over four years later, Newman's shot is causing lots of problems for women's basketball teams around the country.
Newman said Brooks helped her completely change her shot, most notably where she put her hands as she shot the ball.
"It's one of the main things that I personally have worked on," Newman said of her shot.
Her new shooting prowess was on full display on Jan. 23 in a 74-47 win over Drexel. Newman hit a career-high four 3-pointers for the Dukes and finished with 14 points.
Newman is shooting a team-best 38.0 percent from 3-point range (19-for-50).
"I think it's more of a confidence thing for me, just having confidence to shoot the ball," Newman said of her recent shooting surge.
The 6-foot-2 redshirt senior has never been known as a scorer or a shooter, but she's always done almost everything else on the court.
The Turner Ashby High School graduate was the 2011-12 Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year.
This season Newman has 20 blocks and 23 steals for the Dukes.
"She rebounds the ball, but I think one of the biggest things she does, not only does she defend but she disrupts," Brooks said. "She really takes people out of what they want to do. It's one thing to say she's a good defender, but she also disrupts so many things if we're in a zone or we're in a press."
Newman led the team in rebounding her junior year. Last year Newman played nine games before she broke her foot, ending her season. Newman took a redshirt and is now back for a final season.
Brooks said two years ago the Dukes moved Newman to a "point-forward" position, which allows her to handle the ball more and take some pressure off of the point guards.
It worked well as the Dukes advanced to the WNIT finals. It's taken a little time, but Brooks said Newman is now getting back to where she was before her injury and they have once again moved her to the "point-forward" position.
"She's forward by design, by length," Brooks said. "But as soon as we get to the point where we're getting to our sets, we want her at the top of the key. People are playing us zone so much, and it's kind of funny because we're slicing up the zone. This is probably the best zone offensive team that I've ever had.
"Nikki, we put her at the top of the key and she runs our offense like a point guard. She'll play forward on the defensive end, and she runs the offense. She can see over the top of the zone. [Point guard Angela] Mickens is going to slice and dice through it. Nikki sees over top of it, and she's a great passer."
Newman is averaging 5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
Newman has also been a great leader for the Dukes this season, helping guide the team to a 15-4 record and 5-0 in the CAA. The Dukes host College of Charleston tonight at 7 p.m.
In a 62-57 victory over Towson on Jan. 16, Newman made her presence felt on both ends late in the game when the Tigers tried a box-and-one against Kirby Burkholder with 58 seconds to play.
"She catches the ball on the wing and what does she do? She goes down, spin move and left-handed layup scores -- we go up three," Brooks said of Newman's play against Towson.
"We go down on the other end, we need a stop and she blocks [Towson's Tanisha] McTiller's shot, and we get the ball back and seals the game. She's playing great. She's playing as well as I've ever seen her play, and hopefully she continues that."
If Newman's shot continues to fall and the rest of her game is as solid as ever, the Dukes could be on the verge of a really big season.
"I said it to her after the game -- I said, 'Nikki you continue to shoot the ball like you did today and the sky's the limit with this team,'" Drexel coach Denise Dillon said of Newman. "She laughed about it, but she's recognizing, 'OK they're leaving me open, then I'm going to take the shot.' I feel like every [JMU] player on the court is a threat and an option, and when [Newman] adds that [3-point shot], they're very difficult to guard."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or email@example.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd