What started as a way for Nieka Wheeler to hang out with her friends in fifth grade developed into her passion and livelihood. When Wheeler began playing basketball in grade school, she didn’t think it would eventually consume most of her life.
Wheeler led her high school team in Independence, Missouri, to three consecutive conference titles and a district championship. As a senior, she averaged 18.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. Along with being a dynamic athlete on the basketball court, Wheeler excelled on the asphalt. She was a four-year letter winner in track and field.
After high school, Wheeler went on to play basketball at Johnson County Community College and from there she wrote an impressive résumé. During her sophomore campaign for the Lady Cavaliers, she led the team with an average of 13.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. She scored double digits 23 times throughout the season and rebounded double digits 11 times. Averaging 55 percent on the floor, Wheeler steered Johnson County to win the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Championship and ended the season with a 34-2 overall record.
However, Wheeler said she committed to Loyola because she liked the coaching staff and thinks she could have a positive impact on the women’s basketball program.
“I liked the family environment when I came on my visit,” said the junior criminal justice major. “I felt like I could be a part of a new tradition here or to start a tradition [of] winning … [I want] to build a name for women’s basketball here because there is no name.”
Head coach Sheryl Swoopes said she was impressed with Wheeler’s championship mentality and aggressiveness on both ends of the court.
“She brings something you can’t teach and something we obviously haven’t had in this program and that’s just [because] she’s willing to do the little things,” said Swoopes. “She’s playing hard every minute she’s on the floor. We are a very young team and we needed some more players with some more experience. And the championship mentality she brings … and experience is something that she can hopefully teach these young players, you know, what it takes to be a winner.”
And that championship mentality has already made a statement on the court. So far this season, Wheeler has started all five games and pulled down 32 total rebounds. She leads the newcomers averaging 6.4 rebounds and 11.8 points per game.
Wheeler said she believes playing at a junior college has prepared her for the competition at the Division I level.
“There’s a lot of competition [in the junior college league],” Wheeler said. “And I think it really did prepare me to go Division I because now I’m a lot more aggressive and the games are really high energy and intense.”
As for her transition from junior college to Division I, Swoopes said Wheeler is still adjusting but will be ready for conference play. The biggest challenge for Wheeler will be her 5-foot-9 frame, small in comparison to other forwards in Division I, who are usually 5-foot-11 or taller, according to Swoopes.
Redshirt junior teammate Taylor Johnson said Wheeler has a lot of potential and brings positive energy and leadership on and off the court.
“I think she’s a really good teammate,” said Johnson. “I think our younger players especially look up to her. She helps people out a lot — like talking on the floor and helping out with giving tips as to what we can do better.”
Wheeler said she knows she’ll struggle this season with adjusting to Division I play, but she is confident in her abilities. For now, her goal is to continue to become a better player.
“[My drive is] how much I love it, and how much fun I have playing with my team,” Wheeler said. “I think that’s the biggest part, loving what you do.”
Loyola’s women’s basketball team holds a 2-3 overall record. The Ramblers are expected to play Northwestern University, their Purple-Line Rival in Gentile Arena on Dec. 13 at 2 p.m.