UNM’s Shaiquel McGruder (13) blocks a shot by UTEP’S Erin Wilson during action last December in the Pit. (Mike Sandoval/For the Journal)
Shaiquel McGruder always danced to a different tune.
It sometimes starts with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as McGruder regularly taps her foot in rhythm when the national anthem is performed before University of New Mexico women’s basketball games.
The beat picks up after tip-off. The Lobos’ ultra-athletic 6-foot forward then employs her unusual skill to amplify UNM’s appreciative fans and cause headaches for opposing coaching staffs.
It’s not just the latest rendition of a familiar theme. McGruder is a bit of a hybrid: quicker, slimmer and (frequently) shorter than typical posts, but longer, stronger and every bit as fast as most guards.
Her game is different, too.
McGruder excels on the defensive end, ranking second in blocks and fourth in steals in the Mountain West last season. She’s made the league’s All-Defensive Team two years running.
Her offensive game can be a bit offbeat, including a flat-but-effective shooting stroke from the perimeter. But McGruder is pure poetry in the open court, converting steals into fast-break layups, beating foes down the floor on run-outs and cashing in repeatedly on pick-and-roll chances.
How best to sum it all up?
“Just doing my thing,” McGruder says with a grin.
McGruder’s thing has steadily improved since the Trotwood, Ohio native arrived in Albuquerque as a talented, but raw, freshman. She averaged 2.8 points exclusively off the bench in 2018-19, made eight starts as a sophomore and has been a fixture in the Lobos’ lineup ever since.
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Her statistical arc reached new highs last season when McGruder averaged 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.4 blocks per game and easily led the MWC in field goal percentage (60.8%). She was an All-Mountain West selection then and one of five players recently named to the league’s preseason all-conference team. Going into her super senior year (of optional extra eligibility for those who played through the pandemic), she also is among 25 players nominated for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award.
Can she be even better in 2022-23? McGruder and UNM coach Mike Bradbury thinks so.
“I’ve really prepared myself for this season,” McGruder said. “I’m eating better, making sure I get adequate rest and I’m putting in extra time working with (ex-Lobo post and first-year assistant coach Nike McClure). I’m really looking forward to this year.”
Bradbury’s expectations are equally high.
“The next step for Shai is just consistency,” he said. “She had games with 25 points and (seven) double-doubles last year, but she also had too many four-point games. She should never have a single-digit game.”
McGruder had six largely ineffective outings last season in which she scored a total of 20 points. Foul trouble, a lack of proper focus or both were common themes in those games, and McGruder is determined to avoid such issues this season.
“I definitely agree with that,” she said. “I need to be consistent, especially us with having a lot of new girls on the team. I need to set an example.”
That statement comes as music to the ears of Bradbury, who plans to maximize McGruder’s ability to create matchup problems.
“She’s going to get the ball more,” he said. “That’s a point of emphasis.”
Why not? After all, McGruder has posted two of UNM’s top three seasons in terms of field goal percentage and her 60.2% career average is well above that of UNM’s all-time leader, Jaisa Nunn (.571 from 2015-19).
McGruder needs just 18 points to join UNM’s 1,000-point club, and she already ranks among the top 10 in career blocks and steals. Bradbury is convinced her best is yet to come.
“It’s about maturity mostly,” he said. “Shai is a mature young woman now. She’s going to graduate and she’s turned herself from a great athlete into a great basketball player who will be able to play professionally if that’s what she chooses to do. As a coach, watching her grow has been really rewarding.”
Bradbury does not, however, expect UNM’s younger posts to emulate McGruder’s repertoire.
“Shai’s game is different,” he said. “I’m not sure it would work for anybody else.”
TV TIME: Four regular-season Mountain West women’s games will be televised nationally – two of them featuring UNM. The Lobos’ MWC opener at home versus Air Force was moved from Dec. 31 to New Year’s Day to accommodate a 2 pm tip on CBS Sports Network. UNM’s Jan 14 showdown at UNLV will air on FS1.
The Lobos also have added a non-conference game to their schedule. They will host South Carolina State on Dec. 29 at 7 pm