In the midst of gaining post position and boxing out, sophomore forward Leigha Brown was battling for a typical rebound against Michigan. Brown was deep into the tussle for the rebound before she realized a Michigan player scratched her arm up.
“It was a nice battle wound,” senior guard Hannah Whitish said.
The scratch was a minor setback for the sophomore forward, who played through the cut during a 74-71 win over Michigan. It was a different type of performance for the Huskers’ lead scorer, who went 1-for-8 from the field.
Despite the off-shooting night, Brown made her impact through a much more physical style of basketball. That was most obviously seen through her getting to the charity stripe, an uncommon growth for the typical shooter.
“It’s a hard thing to stay focused and positive when shots aren’t falling,” Brown said. “One thing I try to do is no matter how I’m playing offensively or defensively to not let that dictate the other side of the ball for me.”
In games against Michigan or the home win against Minnesota, Brown shot at least 10% below her season average. However, shooting is no longer all Brown needs to contribute to the Huskers.
Brown came in as one of the top scorers in Indiana high school women’s basketball history but quickly needed to adjust to a bigger and stronger Big Ten. For Brown, those growing pains put her in a sharpshooter role at first.
“Coming into college is the only time I've never started,” Brown said. “I’ve always been a starter on whatever team I was on.”
Quickly, Brown impressed with her shooting on only 19 minutes per game during her freshman year. Brown shot 36% from the perimeter and averaged 9.6 points per game, third-best on the team. The shooting was there, but just that alone would not get her into the starting lineup.
Brown received playing time thanks to her shooting, but rebounding became a turning point for her freshman season. Brown had 25 rebounds through her first 12 games but finished strong with 54 rebounds over the last 18 games.
As she grew more comfortable on the court, Brown became an asset on both ends of the floor, and that led her to start six games last season, five in Big Ten play. The strong end to the season and the ensuing offseason meant Nebraska could remake itself, something Brown was very confident in.
“Going through those tough experiences and adversity last year definitely gave me confidence coming into this season,” Brown said. “Just the on-court experiences we got right away helped us get comfortable in our roles.”
This season, Nebraska is 14-4 and leading the Huskers in scoring is Brown. She averages 13.5 points per game, takes more shots and free throws per game than any other player and plays around 24 minutes per game.
Yet her role on the team remains the most unique. Usually, most teams have their starters play the most minutes and the depth players are used to come in for a few minutes and give the starters a break.
For Nebraska, its lead scorer has not started a game.
“We’ve just found a really good niche for her, and she’s found a way to be productive,” head coach Amy Williams said. “Leigha is a scorer, and she has that scorer mentality.”
That scoring ability immediately gives Nebraska an offensive advantage and for Brown, allows her to always find a way to contribute on offense. Shooting from anywhere helps achieve Brown's main goal, to bring energy off the bench.
The energy gives her the ‘spark plug’ label and has helped Brown increase her playing time by five minutes from a year ago. Scoring is not the only way Brown has made a world of difference for the Huskers. Her defense sets apart herself from last season.
“Knowing that she can sub in for either Sammy, Hannah or Nicea if any of them get into foul trouble just gives us flexibility that we like for our team’s rotations,” Williams said.
Playing as a forward, the sophomore’s defensive ability requires defending multiple positions throughout the course of a game. Defending multiple positions is no small feat, and Brown’s defense puts her in a much more physically taxing role.
That role either puts Brown on guards, who are commonly faster, or forwards who have more strength down low in the paint. Brown’s defensive ability is one of her great strengths, even if she is still growing into her role on that side of the floor.
A flexible defender is not a common sight and being someone who can defend multiple positions has given Brown a greater role for Nebraska. The role has transformed Brown from only a scorer to a two-way player who plays with almost everyone in any given game.
Brown’s role off the bench makes her both a spark plug, someone that can score in a flash, or a glue player who does her job and holds the line together. Brown’s game is simply not defined by a label but by a coach and team that recognizes her strengths and works to capitalize on them.