February 24, 2022
A special group of “super seniors”
Players that have impacted the game and so much more
In a time when so much focus is put on which players have their name in the portal, we sometimes lose sight of those that do not. There are hundreds of student-athletes in every sport that spend at least four if not more years of their collegiate careers at the same institution. When a global pandemic turned their lives and athletic careers upside down the past two years, they looked forward, embracing the next opportunity. Out of chaos and uncertainty came one of our new favorite categories – “super seniors.”
This article highlights some of those special “super seniors” in women’s basketball. In full disclosure, I know that this list is not complete and by no means is meant to ignore anyone. However, with help from some incredibly knowledgeable colleagues across the country, I am honored to highlight these women for this piece.
Not every one of them is an All-American or will end their careers as the school’s all-time leading scorer. But, they each have given their blood, sweat and tears to make an impact on their program, school, community and the game. Some have overcome injuries and setbacks that would have made most people quit and never look back. They will move on to the next phases of their lives soon – some will play in the WNBA or overseas while others will coach, teach, treat patients as a physical therapist or doctor or work on Wall Street.
Senior night is coming to every campus across the country in the next week to 10 days. These ceremonies will celebrate those players and their mark on their programs. We stand and applaud everyone that turned chaos into opportunity and gave us another year to watch them on the court.
(Current statistics and records are as of Feb. 22)
Sam Thomas, F, Arizona: Thomas arrived at Arizona as the highest-rated player in their 2017 recruiting class and has been all they could have asked for and more. The Las Vegas, NV native, was named to the 2018 All-Pac 12 Freshman team and each year continued to be one of the most consistent players in a league filled with great talent. Last season, she averaged just over 35 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament as her team made a magical run to the national championship. Thomas was named the 2021 Pac 12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, a testament to her dedication on and off the court. This season, she leads the Wildcats in minutes played. And as she has been her entire career, she is one of the most consistent players on their roster.
Mya Hollingshed, F, Colorado: Basketball was in her blood from a very young age and there was no doubt from the start that Hollingshed would have a successful college career at Colorado. Arriving in Boulder from Houston, TX, she played in every game as a freshman and increased her double-figure scoring average each of the past three seasons. She currently leads the Buffaloes in scoring (14.1 per game), rebounding (7 per game) and blocks (27) and has seven double-doubles so far on the year. Hollingshed graduated in the spring of 2021 with a degree in communications and is set to finish her career as a Buffalo with a trip to the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Hannah Nihill (G) and Mariah Leonard (F), Drexel: It will be hard to imagine Drexel women’s basketball without Hannah Nihill and Mariah Leonard on the floor, considering the impact they each have made in distinct but similar ways. Leonard redshirted the 2016-17 season and only played in three games the following year before a season-ending injury put her back on the sidelines. Since then, she has proven to be the quintessential blue-collar worker, the one who does the things on the floor others avoid. Leonard has been Drexel’s charge leader three years in a row and led the team in field goal percentage a year ago.
With her minutes going up each season, she has started every game next to Nihill this year and is having the best statistical season of her career. Nihill’s impact on Drexel’s program was immediate upon her arrival, being named the CAA Rookie of the Year in 2017-18. She is known as a gritty defender and facilitator; her scoring numbers exploded last year, averaging over 16 points per game. She is the first Dragon ever to earn CAA Defensive Player of the Year (2021) and already has over 100 assists this season. Drexel is on the hunt for a 2022 NCAA Tournament bid which would be a great way to send these two players out in style.
Khayla Pointer, G, LSU: Coaching changes are never easy and most definitely not a simple thing to process when you have already played four years at an institution. Yet Pointer has never shed away from a challenge and another year at LSU was an opportunity to continue her great career. Since her sophomore season in 2018-19, Pointer has started every game but one, including this season.
Last year she was a first-team All-SEC and defensive team selection. Her game has continued to grow this season, including becoming an explosive scorer, dropping 45 points on Missouri on Jan. 13 and leads the No. 8 Tigers in scoring. Her court vision and unselfish play has put her in the top 25 nationally in total assists. A re-set of LSU women’s basketball has positioned the program to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018 – when Pointer was starting her journey to becoming an elite-level guard in the women’s game.
Lauren Van Kleunen, F Marquette: When players like Lauren Van Kleunen redshirted during the 2016-17 season, there was no way to fathom a global pandemic and that a collegiate career could stretch six years. But Marquette has been the fortunate one, having a player like Van Kleunen with consistency and grit leading the way. She was a second-team All-Big East selection a year ago and her numbers have gone up every season in scoring and rebounding.
She is currently leading the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game, adding 6.7 rebounds per game, a career-high average. Van Kleunen received the 2021 Big East Sportsmanship Award and has made the most of her time at Marquette in the classroom as well. She has earned a master’s degree in communication and media studies with a sport leadership certificate. She is currently pursuing her second certificate of leadership while leading this year’s Golden Eagles squad to the NCAA Tournament.
Gadiva Hubbard, G, Minnesota: When a list of “veterans who has persevered” in women’s basketball is crafted, Gadiva Hubbard’s name should be right at the top. The Virginia Beach, VA native, arrived in Minnesota in 2016 and debuted with a solid freshman campaign. She started 31 of 32 games as a sophomore but then lost the 2018-19 season due to injury. She came back to be named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention in 2020, but last season was cut shorter for Hubbard with injuries.
Despite her setbacks, she is still one of the best three-point shooters in Minnesota history, ranking in the top 10 in both career attempts and makes. This season she continues to provide the veteran leadership the Golden Gophers have needed, all the while wearing jersey #13, which was the number of her head coach, Lindsay Whalen, when she played at Minnesota. Hubbard posted a season-high 19 points in a much-needed win over Northwestern on Feb. 12, knocking down five 3-point shots – vintage Gadiva Hubbard.
Brice Calip, G, Missouri State: For Brice Calip, 2016 may seem like a lifetime ago. That was her first season at Missouri State, but it was cut short after seven games due to injury. She received a medical hardship waiver, and from that point on; Calip has been a force to be reckoned with in the Missouri Valley Conference. She is the reigning MVC Player of the Year (named after another Lady Bear great, Jackie Stiles), a two-time first-team all-conference pick and was the 2020 MVC Defensive Player of the Year. She led the Lady Bears to an undefeated MVC title last season and an appearance in the Sweet 16. This year has had many ups and downs, but Calip and her teammates sit at 20-5 and are in the hunt for another NCAA Tournament bid.
Head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton knows just how fortunate Missouri State has been to have a player like Calip in their midst. “Brice is leaving an amazing legacy here,” she said after their Feb. 13 win over Northern Iowa. “To come back and play six years, there’s a lot that goes into being a student-athlete. A lot of sacrifice – you sacrifice your body, your time, the mental ups and downs, it tells you a lot about her. She’s a winner. She’s won the most games as a Lady Bear at this point. Her legacy is her heart, her will to win, her competitive spirit, her leadership and the sacrifices she’s made along the way.”
Olivia Korngable (G), Chloe Lamb (G) and Hannah Sjerven (F), South Dakota: After winning back-to-back Summit League tournament titles and making three straight trips to the NCAA tournament, South Dakota head coach Dawn Plitzuweit hit the proverbial veteran lottery. She got not one but three super seniors back for the 2021-22 season. They each have written their own scripts differently during their time in Vermillion. But they currently are the top three scorers for the Coyotes, each leads the team in multiple other statistical categories and they all will be 1,000-point scorers by the time this season is over.
“I don’t think there was ever a group conversation, it was a decision for each of us to make,” Sjerven said during media day in October 2021. “There were different factors that played into it but at the end of the day, to play for a program that does have success and does support you was an easy decision.”
Chloe Lamb made her presence known right when she stepped foot on campus, being named to the Summit League all-newcomer team in 2018. She has been a first-team all-conference performer and was the Summit League tournament MVP in 2021. Hannah Sjerven made her way to South Dakota after transferring from New Mexico; however, that was still when players were required to sit out a year. Sjerven has spent the past four seasons battling inside as an undersized post and making the most of it – she was voted the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year two seasons in a row and recently set the South Dakota career block record.
Korngable was the latest bloomer of the trio, taking advantage of the opportunities given to her last year, starting all 25 games, and earning all-conference honors. Her ability to become a scoring threat these past two seasons helps South Dakota as they near their goal of making a fourth straight NCAA Tournament in March.
“This group has a really good blend of being super competitive and edgy, but then they know when to flip it,” Plitzuweit said during her Feb. 14 Coyote Report Radio Show. “Whether that is in practice, or with their teammates or with an opponent, they are able to move on and move forward. That’s what this group has been really special about doing.”
Anna Wilson, G, Stanford: Anna Wilson’s battle to have an impact on Stanford women’s basketball started even before she set foot on campus. After taking an elbow to the head in practice at the 2016 McDonald’s All-American Game, Wilson dealt with the symptoms and aftermath of a concussion for months. When she was able to go for The Cardinal, the injury bug cut both her freshman and sophomore campaigns short. The 5’9 guard may be one of the best stories of perseverance and love of the sport. After all of the roadblocks, Wilson carved herself a path to success and playing time – defense and leadership.
Last season, she started all 33 games for Stanford on the way to their 2021 NCAA title and was named Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. She averages over 23 minutes per game this season. And is one of the top three players for head coach Tara VanDerveer in assists and steals. So when the Stanford coaches need to lock down an opponent’s best guard, Wilson’s number is called.
Lauren Heard, G, TCU: When the TCU record book is updated after this season, there is one name that will grace it from cover to cover – 5’9 guard Lauren Heard. She has had one of the most well-rounded careers in TCU and Big 12 history. However, to hear her and others talk, it has never been about individual accolades, but what the Horned Frog program could accomplish. “Lauren came back because she felt there was still unfinished business here. I’m super happy that she’s here,” said head coach Raegan Pebley at the start of the 2021-22 season.
Heard is a two-time All-Big 12 first-team selection and has been one of the best defenders in the Big 12 throughout her career. The Denton, TX native is a drop-dead scorer and finisher (averaged 21.2 per game as a junior) but her court vision and ability to control a game is evident by being just the third player in program history to dish out 500 assists in her career. Coaches will not miss matching up with Heard next season. But her skill, intensity and smile on the court will be missed by everyone.
Kayla Wells, G, Texas A&M: In her first season in College Station, Kayla Wells played in 33 games and averaged just under 15 minutes per game. Yet most everyone knew that head coach Gary Blair had something special in his 6’0 guard; who was a top 30 recruit at her position out of high school. So it was only a matter of time before she made her mark.
For the past four seasons, Wells has averaged no less than 11.5 points per game (team-leading 16.7 this season) and has played at least 31 minutes per game. She is the all-time leader in career 3-point percentage at Texas A&M and her 28 points against Auburn in the 2019 SEC Tournament is the most by an Aggie player in that tournament since A&M joined the league in 2012-13. Here is a simple scouting report for those who do not know yet – do not put Wells at the free-throw line because she shoots over 80% for her career at the line. That is experience at its best.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!