With just four games left in her college career, Yale women’s basketball player Nyasha Sarju ’16 has a lot to reflect upon.
On paper, she looks like an entirely new player this season. After starting just seven games last year, Sarju has started in all 26 games that she has played in this year while becoming Yale’s most potent offensive threat. Listed as a guard on the roster but having played most of the season at forward, Sarju is averaging 15.1 points per game, the fifth-highest mark in the Ivy League and more than double her average last season.
But when talking to Sarju’s head coach and teammates, no one is surprised at her increased production given the amount of talent she has always possessed.
“I knew I had a special impact player in Nyasha seeing that I was on the staff when we recruited her out of high school,” said head coach Allison Guth, who is in her first year at the helm of the team. “It became very clear in our first weeks of practice, how talented Nyasha was and how she raised the bar of excellence in the way she approached each and every practice. Her intensity is contagious and when she attacks a competitive drill, those around her try to match her focus and drive.”
Sarju’s ability was on full display in the team’s season opener as the Seattle native had a statement game in just her 15th career start. Sarju scored a career-high 30 points against Dayton, a team that advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Only three other players in the Ivy League have broken the 30-point mark this season, and for the first few weeks of the season, Sarju was the league’s leading scorer in a crowded field.
Since that game, Sarju, one of four seniors on this year’s squad, has been indispensable to the Elis, who are 11–16 this season overall with a 2–8 conference record. After captain and guard Whitney Wyckoff ’16, Sarju has played the second-most minutes per game and has led the team, or tied for the team lead in scoring, on 14 occasions.
“I think opening the season playing a game like I did at Dayton was definitely encouraging for me to realize I had the potential to be a threat and to give me confidence in playing the forward position and guarding that position as well,” Sarju said.
Sarju credits her improved play to working in the offseason on diversifying her skills on the court, especially given her increased time playing in the frontcourt this season.
Over the summer, she worked with a trainer with a focus on creating space down low and developing post moves, with less of a focus on set shooting and playing on the perimeter.
“I think expanding my repertoire has helped me to score in multiple ways this season,” Sarju said. “Instead of just relying on my shooting as I feel I have often done in the past few years, I worked on other ways I could score the ball and other ways even off the ball that I could affect the game. This season playing the post more has helped me rebound better just because my mentality has been more attack-minded.”
Sarju added that she has not played the post exclusively since middle school, but appreciates the added versatility of the position. The numbers show why — Sarju is averaging 5.0 rebounds per game this year, second best on the team, compared to just 2.0 boards per game last season.
According to Sarju, the increased emphasis on post play, coupled with Guth’s mentality to focus on the next shot rather than mistakes, has allowed Sarju to flourish.
“[It’s] a lot easier to just go out and play [when you’re not] focusing on whether or not it’s a shot you should take or [if] you’re going to get pulled if you miss,” Sarju said. “Just having more freedom to play especially offensively definitely takes the pressure off of needing to perform to stay on the court.”
Guth said Sarju’s attitude and work ethic have had a tremendous influence on her teammates, including some who chose to play for Yale in part due to Sarju’s presence on the team. Guard Tamara Simpson ’18 is one of those players, who remembers meeting Sarju the summer before her senior year of high school.
“Originally being the same position on the court, she has always inspired me to work harder as I tried my best to keep up with her,” Simpson said. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been knocked down by her when we’ve had to guard each other in practice, but she has always been there to pick me and motivate me to not be discouraged.”
The recognition for Sarju has come pouring in throughout the season. She has been named to the Ivy League Honor Roll seven times this year, including one Ivy League Player of the Week award for her performances against St. John’s and Stony Brook, when she averaged 19.5 points per game as well as six rebounds per contest. Sarju also earned a spot on the NCAA Division I Academic All-District team in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region.
As far as her future after Yale basketball, that remains to be decided. Sarju, a psychology major, said she is considering playing professionally overseas, perhaps while pursuing a master’s degree. Sarju added that she definitely wants to coach, although the level has yet to be determined.
“Once the season’s over, there will be more of an opportunity to figure out what’s next, but as of right now, I’m focused on the next four games and I think we can do some damage and hopefully come out on a four-game win streak,” Sarju said.
The Bulldogs’ next game is on Friday at Harvard. It will be the final chance for Sarju and her fellow seniors, who have never beaten the Crimson, to earn a win over their rivals.