When Shae Kelley was growing up, she would follow her two older brothers outside to play on their portable basketball hoop in a nearby alley.
The boys had a simple way of getting their sister to leave them alone.
“I didn’t know until years later,” Kelley’s father, Lewis, said, “that my oldest would stick her in a trash can because she got in the way.”
That didn’t stop Kelley, whose resilience would be tested through seven school transfers in nine years — starting in high school. Not every transition was smooth, but Kelley seems to have found a home in Minnesota.
The 23-year-old Kelly, a Denver native, has been essential to the best start in program history for the No. 21 Gophers, who are 16-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten with first-year coach Marlene Stollings.
“What I see from Shae is just her experience and her maturity showing through,” Stollings said. “What you’re really seeing is her comfort level at this point.”
Entering Thursday’s game against Purdue (9-9, 2-5) at Williams Arena, Kelley is averaging 16.7 points and 8.9 rebounds. She earned Big Ten player of the week honors Monday after posting 29 points and 18 rebounds in a victory at Ohio State, and 19 points and 13 rebounds in a win against Indiana at home.
“I’ll tell you this, I’m glad she’s a post-grad kid and we don’t have to deal with her anymore after this year,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “She’s just a tremendous athlete that can score. She’s relentless on the boards.”
The Gophers are on track for their first trip to the NCAA tournament in six years despite the loss of leading scorer Rachel Banham — out for the season because of a knee injury. That wouldn’t be possible if Kelley weren’t taking pressure off All-Big Ten center Amanda Zahui B.
Kelley transferred to Minnesota to pursue a master’s degree in youth development leadership. But the move was also a chance to play in the Big Dance for the first time in her career, something Banham was hoping to do, as well.
Kelley, who writes poetry, was so struck by her fellow senior missing the rest of the season that she came up with “Buckets for Banham.” The slogan was printed on T-shirts worn by the entire team and has become a rallying cry for what has been a remarkable run.
— Indiana coach Teri Moren
“Initially, we thought it would be one game that we wear them,” Kelley said. “But we just decided to keep wearing them, just to help her still feel a part of the team.”
Kelley started her high school career at George Washington in Denver. Her father was the track coach there for more than a decade, and her brothers, Dominique and Isaiah, went there.
But after her freshman season, the family moved across town into the Denver East district. Her dad was a lieutenant in the fire department. Her mom, Anita, was a school teacher.
East was a good school, but it wasn’t private and didn’t have a powerhouse girls basketball team like nearby Regis Jesuit. So Kelley transferred again as a junior. That move didn’t last, either; Kelley went back to East during the school year.
“The reason she went [to Jesuit] was to be with girls she had played with during summer ball, and also the academic piece,” Lewis Kelley said. “But when she got up there, it really wasn’t a good fit. It wasn’t working.”
The instability caused some friction on the court; Kelley was suspended once by her head coach. But the Angels won their first state girls basketball championship led by Kelley, who was named Colorado’s Miss Basketball.
“Whatever decision you make, some people are going to have something to say, even if it’s a good decision,” Kelley said. “I think I did a very good job of tuning that out and staying focused on … what was the best for me and my future.”
As the state’s top player, Kelley was the crown jewel of then-Colorado coach Kathy McConnell-Miller’s 2010 nationally ranked recruiting class. Kelley was eager to help turn around her hometown program, but the excitement fizzled when McConnell-Miller was fired after a 13-19 record in 2009-10.
Kelley wanted out.
Colorado wouldn’t release her from the scholarship; the school wanted her to wait one academic year to give the new coach a shot.
Instead, an ex-Colorado assistant who recruited her, Patrick Harrington, helped land Kelley at Northwest Florida State College.
“Just transferring from CU, that was a tough decision,” Kelley said. “I had a great team around me. I really loved the team. But the coaching style was different. It’s always hard to come in as a freshman with coaches that didn’t recruit you.”
In junior college, Kelley earned All-American honors in 2010-11, but she wanted to return to Division I and liked the staff at Old Dominion.
Kelley led the Monarchs in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and junior, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors last season.
“I wanted to put myself in a position where the coaching staff could make me better,” Kelley said. “[ODU assistant] Adrienne Goodson was there. She played in the WNBA for, like, 17 years. I thought she really would be able to develop me. We have a really great relationship to this day.”
Because Old Dominion didn’t offer the graduate program Kelley wanted — youth development leadership — she made the difficult decision to transfer yet again.
She had found some stability at Old Dominion but told herself that every transfer she had made — from the first family move in ninth grade — was to improve her life. This move, she knew, would be important for life after basketball.
Several major programs were interested in Kelley, such as Ohio State, Michigan State, Louisville and Louisiana State. Minnesota got involved because Stollings coached against ODU while at VCU.
Minnesota had a program in Kelley’s field of study, and she liked the style of play with the new coach. Kelley asked her parents not to come on the recruiting trip; she felt old enough to decide herself.
“I just trusted her gut and her instincts,” her father said. “It was Shae’s decision, and we supported her with it.”
Kelley gets her athleticism from her father, who played college football at Grand Valley State and briefly at Southern Colorado (now Colorado State-Pueblo) before the program folded in 1984.
Neither of her brothers played football or basketball in college, but Dominique, the oldest, ran track at LSU before Hurricane Katrina forced him to finish school closer to home. He’s now an up-and-coming standup comedian going by the name D. Kelley. Isaiah is an actor based in Denver.
Kelley’s career might have started in a trash can, but she quickly began to hold her own against her brothers. By her freshman year in college, she could dunk. Now she has a chance to play in the WNBA.
“My greatest joy as a parent was watching my kids compete,” Lewis said. “It’s just so nice for them to be happy doing something they love. So for her to make it to that level would be great. She’s just got to keep playing and getting better.”
This article was written by Marcus R. Fuller from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.