Once in a while, a player is overlooked in recruitment – by everyone. It is an old adage that intangibles: heart, composure and perseverance, cannot be measured, but it was crystal clear on Sunday in Walsh Gymnasium what so many Division I scouts missed in Seton Hall guard Nicole Jimenez.
As the senior from Miami, Fla. rained a program-record nine three-pointers on Saint Peter’s, coaches from her past took to social media and shared the unfolding story. Anyone who crossed paths with Jimenez at Florida Christian or Broward College knew she was capable of more than the zero Division-I offers she received during high school would suggest.
Now, the underestimated 5-foot-2 guard is a symbol of what one can achieve when the conventional door is bolted shut: when only two junior colleges and a start-up program in Florida Southwestern show interest.
“A lot of people were telling me to go to JUCO so that maybe I could go to a small D-I,” Jimenez said. “After my freshman year at Broward, I had a few small Division I [offers].
“It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I had a lot more offers, just because, I guess, how I did my sophomore year. And then, it wasn’t until Coach Bozzella came to my last game when we were in States and he saw my last game, it was literally my last game.”
In that second year at Broward, Jimenez averaged 15.5 points on 40.3 percent from three, inspired and kept grounded by a bevy of factors, from the Catholic scriptures she read to the proverbs from her coaches. One that has remained a part of her psyche is, “one percent better each day.”
“My Coach from Broward used to always tell us that,” Jimenez said, before pausing to laugh. “Her name is Melissa Baker, but I call her MJ Triple Threat.”
The gratitude she has toward her family is evident, too. Jimenez has two older sisters and two younger brothers, one of whom, Joshua, claims he can handle Jimenez in one-on-one.
“I’m going to stick to, he won’t beat me,” Jimenez said.
When the day came to sign for Seton Hall, the family made their way to The Salty Donut in Miami for the photo. The popular, trendy coffee shop had plenty of options to satisfy their cravings, but nothing was sweeter than when Jimenez put pen to paper and committed to the Big East school.
“I mean, it’s a dream come true,” Jimenez said of that day, with a smile as wide as the three-point arc.
A marksman from three, Jimenez struggled to find consistency last season in a half-court offense that was more stop-start. She attempted 97 threes in 598 minutes last season; whereas this year, in 259 minutes, her shot total from beyond the arc is 75.
“We had a lot more ball screens, and you don’t see that a lot this year,” Jimenez said. “So, the pace, it’s faster. We’re not waiting for a ball screen, we’re just going, we’re just playing. We’re coming off floppy screens, it’s not really an on-ball screen, it’s kind of an off-the-ball screen.”
While last season was admittedly a “rollercoaster,” Jimenez glittered with potential in certain moments.
The first instance of that was against UCLA on Dec. 17, 2017, when she totaled a season-high 20 points inside a raucous home environment, nearly stunning the 11th-ranked Bruins in a 77-68 loss. Then, in the final three regular season games, Jimenez averaged 15 points, providing further optimism about what promised to be an emotional senior year.
But, this summer, an untimely, unstable injury threatened the final season Jimenez worked so hard for. The dynamic guard was diagnosed with a herniated disc.
“[The training] was a lot of, like, more mobility, because I have no mobility,” Jimenez recalled at Big East Media Day on Oct. 25. “It was very different training because I’m a lot about pushing weight, moving weight, lifting, but it was less of that and more of being mobile.”
What so many scouts missed four years ago was the discipline and drive that burns inside Jimenez, as scorching hot as her three-point stroke inside Walsh Gymnasium on Sunday. It is a blend of desire and patience that allowed her to navigate that tricky injury this summer, as well as embrace the unconventional path she took to arrive in Division I college basketball.
Any past doubts related to her 5-foot-2 stature seem foolish now, with hindsight treating her absence of D-I college offers as kindly as the Pirates treated the Peacocks in their 90-47 romp.
“The question just makes me laugh because I’m used to playing with girls that are so much taller than me,” Jimenez said. “And, I mean, what’s the [former] point guard from Mississippi State, Morgan William? You know, she’s made big-time plays, beat UConn.”
The mention is timely, considering the Pirates’ next opponent is the very Connecticut program whose 111-game win streak ended when a 5-foot-5 William nailed an overtime buzzer-beater over a 5-foot-11 Gabby Williams in the 2017 Final Four.
“So, I mean, I’m not like the only one,” Jimenez laughed. “There are other players out there, that are doing bigger things than I am.”
But, humble as Jimenez is, there may not be a player over the last two seasons who has performed in big moments more consistently for the Pirates. Her double-digit games down the stretch last year came against rivals and conference juggernauts St. John’s, Marquette and DePaul, and she led the team in scoring against Xavier in a Big East Tournament first-round win.
This season is about making the most of her last opportunity. The record-setting nine threes, career-high 33 points and subsequent Big East Weekly Honor Roll is an astonishing way to start December, but Jimenez never imagined doing so when she toiled away in the gym this summer.
“My goal wasn’t even to break the school record, it just ended up happening; I didn’t even know throughout the game, it just happened,” Jimenez said.
Jimenez focuses on what she can control, and often times that is not as much as she would like. But, she never loses direction. What others might see as crushing setbacks, Jimenez views as a part of the process.
“I guess it just goes back to, leaving it in God’s hands and He’s in control,” Jimenez said. “And, continuing to live each day in the present, not thinking too much about what I can and cannot do, and just doing my best.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.