In Grand Canyon University’s first year of eligibility for the Division I NCAA tournament, a former Ahwatukee basketball standout has taken the helm of the school’s women’s basketball team.
After playing in the WNBA for 11 years and coaching for the past three at the University of Oregon under head coach Kelly Graves, Mountain Pointe alum Nicole Powell has returned to the Valley to pass on her knowledge of the sport.
Powell was never really looking to move on from the program that she had helped build at Oregon over the past three years – which is currently ranked No. 11 in the country and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament before falling to the University of Connecticut.
But after receiving calls from other small schools, she received a call from Grand Canyon University Vice President of Athletics Mike Vaught.
“I thought I was really intrigued and wanted to know more,” Powell said. “Then, after my visit here I was really like ‘Wow. I really want to be a part of this and the GCU community.’ And I think the fact that being in my hometown was a bonus, but it wasn’t the only reason. It was about being here at GCU, and I feel like I have a GCU family.”
She becomes the eighth coach in the program’s history, and now the Lopes are eligible for Division I postseason play for the first time in school history.
One thing that stood out to Powell the most was the buzz and momentum around the program, and she is looking forward to building on both of those aspects.
And she has the experience and talent to do so.
During her time at Mountain Pointe, Powell accomplished a lot. She was named the Arizona Player of the Year twice and set school records with 2,478 career points and 1,760 career rebounds. In her senior season, she led the Pride to a 30-2 record and an appearance in the state title game, averaging 21.1 points and 15.5 rebounds per game.
That helped her earn a chance to play at Stanford University, where she was a three-time All-American and a three-time finalist for the James Naismith Player of the Year Award. She scored over 2,000 points in her four-year career and grabbed over 1,000 rebounds. Then she was drafted third overall in the 2004 WNBA Draft by the Charlotte Sting.
One year later, in 2005, she won a WNBA Championship and earned the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
Powell went from averaging 4.3 points per game as a rookie to averaging 10.7 points per game in her sophomore season. Her accomplishments in the league go on and one, including being named a WNBA All-Star in 2009 and leading the WNBA in free throw percentage in both 2007 and 2009.
While those accomplishments are great, her experience playing helped set her up for her post-playing days.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how much you know because you haven’t had to tap back into it,” Powell said. “Being a coach, and obviously starting off as an assistant coach, situations would arise whether it was in practice or a drill or what one of our kids were going through, how they are feeling, maybe they lost their confidence. There were a thousand things that could happen that make you reflect, because you pull on your life experience and asking how you can help.”
That experience will come in handy as Powell tries to build off a team that went 15-12 last season and finished with a .500 record in Western Athletic Conference (WAC). It also finished with a home record of 11-3.
“There is a huge amount of momentum on campus and in the athletics but also just the way the school is growing,” Powell said. “I feel like we are really blowing up and expanding, and I feel like we are feeding off that energy and that buzz.”