Woe to ye who hath face NCH on defense.
Have you ever had a chance to watch Nicole Cardaño-Hillary play in-person? Because there’s things that just don’t show up on the broadcast.
She was known for her tenacious defense at Indiana, she had an eye for the ball. No, literally, if you watched her play defense she’d almost never take her eyes off the ball. Always looking to make a play, grab a steal, anything to disrupt.
Those few times that she took her eyes off the ball? It was to look her opponent right in the eye, and occasionally give them a knowing smile. She was getting in their head, and she knew it.
If you don’t believe me, just look back to the Big Ten Tournament Championship when teammates had to separate Iowa’s Caitlin Clark from yelling at Cardaño-Hillary while all the latter could do was smile right back at her.
Clark even shoulder checked her during a pause in play, it was that obvious that NCH got in her head.
Cardaño-Hillary just knew how to play defense. It can be more than just frustrating your opponents with your play, you can really lean into it. As you can see in the photo attached to this article, Indiana usually matched her against a team’s top threat at guard.
With the way head coach Teri Moren prioritizes defense, Cardaño-Hillary was an absolute home run hit in the transfer portal.
The one downside is that defense doesn’t show up all that much in the traditional stats, you have to really watch how someone plays to get a feel. But even here, Cardaño-Hillary is an exception with a team-leading 2.3 steals per game.
The gap between Cardaño-Hillary’s 2.3 steals per game and No. 2 on the list Grace Berger’s 1.4 steals (a gap of 0.9), is as wide as that between Berger and No. 6 on the list in Mackenzie Holmes. Doesn’t mean Berger or Holmes can’t get steals! It’s just that Cardaño-Hillary is in an ideal spot to do so against the point and tended to capitalize on that.
Defense isn’t all Cardaño-Hillary could do though. Indiana’s offense didn’t have one solid guard running the point every game/dishing out assists. Berger led the team in assists per game with 4.7, but the other two starting guards in Cardaño-Hillary and Ali Patberg were also capable of doing with with 3.1 and 3.4 assists per game, respectively.
As the smallest player on the team at 5-6, Indiana leveraged Cardaño-Hillary’s size and speed to have her crash into the paint past less agile defenders for layups or having her take the ball along the baseline to find open teammates.
Beyond those layups and finding open teammates, Cardaño-Hillary was also Indiana’s most consistent 3-point shooter. She had the most attempts and knocked them down at a rate of 35.7%.
Cardaño-Hillary scored 11.6 points per game, tied with Patberg for fourth among Indiana’s starters. But when all of your starters average over 10 points per game, it’s a good idea to spread the ball around to keep the defense guessing.
Between her ability to beat opponents on defense with skill and/or getting in their head, shooting ability and speed on the offensive end, Cardaño-Hillary was an all-around threat that Indiana could rely on when needed. Big shoes to fill for whoever comes next.