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Highly touted freshman brings athleticism to UNM women

Shaiquel McGruder’s basketball story doesn’t have a typical first chapter.

The University of New Mexico women’s basketball freshman did not lie awake at night as a youngster dreaming of future hoops glory. Such fantasies amounted to been-there, done-that in McGruder’s family.

“I didn’t like basketball at all,” McGruder said. “That was my parents’ thing.”

Turns out it was quite a thing for Chris Ray and Quiana McGruder, who both played basketball at Ohio’s Central State University. Shaiquel’s parents met during their college basketball careers, adding a major subplot to the story. Their daughter had little interest in adding another chapter.

“I was into track,” she said. “That was my thing.”

Shaiquel McGruder’s story changed thanks to a fifth-grade lark. She and a friend made a last-minute agreement to attend elementary school basketball tryouts, largely just for something to do. At that point McGruder had steadfastly avoided learning much about the game.

“We actually ended up making the team,” she said. “I didn’t expect that but it was like, ‘Well, we can’t quit now.’ Once we started playing games, I had to admit it was fun.”

Now an ultra-athletic 6-foot-2 post, McGruder is putting together an impressive hoops tale of her own. The Trotwood, Ohio, native capped a stellar high school career by averaging 25.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for Trotwood-Madison last season. She was named to the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association’s All-Ohio first team.

McGruder, who goes by “Shai,” was ranked as the No. 121 overall national prospect by ESPNW evaluator Dan Olson and heavily recruited. She had never been to New Mexico prior to a recruiting visit last October, but that weekend proved pivotal. McGruder and fellow recruit Jayla Everett toured UNM’s campus and Albuquerque together and attended the Lobos’ open preseason practice. Both committed the following week.

“I liked it here right away,” McGruder said, “but it’s definitely different. The climate is a lot different than Ohio’s, especially the altitude. The first time we worked out I was like, ‘I can’t breathe here!'”

McGruder has since adjusted to Albuquerque’s thin air. In fact, she’s thriving in it.

“Shai is a high-energy player and that’s what we need from her,” Lobo coach Mike Bradbury said. “She’s a good rebounder and she’s got a chance to be a really good defender, but right now we need her to bring energy and run the floor. Her athleticism gives us kind of another element in the post.”

McGruder has been working at both power forward and center and could end up playing minutes at both positions. She likes both but sees the two assignments differently.

“If I’m at center my No. 1 job is to rebound,” McGruder said. “If I’m at the 4, I can post up and look for offense a little more. Of course, defense is big at both positions.”

As her scoring average last season indicates, McGruder’s offensive game is not limited to layups and putbacks. Bradbury said, “I don’t know how often we’ll ask her to do it this year, but Shai can step out and shoot it.”

How far can she step out?

“I can shoot the 3,” she said with a grin. “I’ve been working on that a lot since I got here.”

Whatever her role ends up being, McGruder says she’s looking forward to the UNM chapter of her basketball story. She has high expectations for 2018-19.

“We have a really good bond on this team,” she said. “Everyone has the same goal and that’s to win. With the talent and chemistry we have, I honestly don’t see anything standing in our way.”

OPEN PRACTICE: Fans can get an early look at this year’s Lobos during an open practice/scrimmage Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Dreamstyle Arena. Players will sign autographs afterward. Admission is free and fans are asked to park in the Pit West lot.

“We can’t wait to show the fans what we’ve been working on,” McGruder said. “I think we’re all pretty excited about that.”

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