Point guard Janeicia Neely has found a way to balance offensive roles at Loyola.
Neely, a Kenner native, enters Thursday’s opening game of the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament averaging a career-best 18.8 points per game. She’s also shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, an attribution to her many high-percentage shots and well-rounded offensive tactics.
Her improved finishes at the rim have led to a higher 3-point percentage. Just as important, Neely excels at distributing, setting up Wolf Pack teammates for their own shots.
“It’s fun. It’s a challenge at the same time,” said Neely, who prepped at Cabrini. “Getting my teammates involved, distributing the ball, getting my own shots up and the scoring is all very important. I just realized I have to be both.”
Loyola (24-3, 15-3) hopes Neely’s many roles continue with Thursday afternoon’s opening game of the SSAC tournament.
The Wolf Pack, ranked ninth in the latest NAIA Top 25 Poll and seeded second in the tournament, will play seventh-seeded Faulkner, a 67-60 winner Wednesday morning against 10th-seeded Coastal Georgia.
Tip-off is 12:30 p.m. at the Cramton Bowl Multiplex in Montgomery, Alabama.
Loyola is coming off Saturday’s 81-70 regular-season finale win over Belhaven. The Wolf Pack rallied from an 11-point deficit in the first half. Neely scored 27 points with seven rebounds and five assists.
Neely is also a top defender, often guarding an opponent’s best frontcourt scorer, coach Kellie Kennedy said.
“She does so much of everything for us,” Kennedy said. “She’s smart about it and makes smart decisions, setting people up.”
Neely, a senior, spent last offseason working on finishing at the rim, a strategy that has opened up opportunities elsewhere on the court.
While her scoring her has increased more than five points a game from her junior season (13.4), her shooting percentage has improved — from 37.3 percent last season to 49.9 percent.
She’s also scored 25 or more points five times this season, including a career-high 30 points during a Jan. 15 loss at Bethel.
Neely (5-feet-5) can penetrate past defenders in both directions and opt for a layup or pull-up jumper. She can set up teammate Megan Whittaker for a 3-pointer or second-leading scorer Meghan Temple (11.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg) in the post.
No wonder Kennedy recently told a coach that every time she sees Neely shoot, she believes her point guard is going to score.
Top-seeded Bethel (28-2), ranked fifth nationally, beat Loyola this season , including a 62-53 win on Feb. 26 at The Den. The Lady Cats finished the regular season with a perfect record (18-0) and enter the tournament with a 22-game win streak.
Loyola’s other loss this season was Feb. 12 to Blue Mountain College (74-82) seeded sixth.
Loyola vs. Bethel: After losing twice to Bethel this season, the Loyola men are hoping to turn the tables at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the second round of the SSAC Tournament in the Cramton Bowl Complex in Montgomery, Alabama.
Loyola (14-12, 8-10 SSAC) ended the regular season with a 78-75 overtime victory over Belhaven to secure the No. 6 seed.
McCall Tomeny averages 15.9 points and 7.7 rebounds to pace Loyola. Robert Lovaglio averages 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds.
Bethel (22-8, 12-6) is led by Caleb Hardy, who is second in the SSAC with 21.0 points per game. Gary Pollard averages 11.7 points.