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Kalamazoo — Micaela Kelly is building on her legend at Central Michigan during her junior year, showing she is not only one of the premier guards in the Mid-American Conference, but the country, as well.

Kelly, a 5-foot-6 combo guard who played her high-school ball for William Winfield at Detroit King, is second in the nation in scoring (23.9), and shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range for the Chippewas (13-4), who sit atop the MAC standings at 6-0.

If the season ended today, Central would be in the NCAA Tournament field with an RPI of 23 since the Chippewas faced a strong nonconference schedule, including a loss to No. 5 Louisville.

Kelly has averaged 24.8 points and is shooting 45.9 percent from deep range during a recent 13-game stretch in which the Chippewas are 13-1 following an 0-3 start to the season. They defeated Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night.

“My role is pretty important, as I go, the team goes, so I have to bring the energy on offense and on defense,” said Kelly, who averaged 14.6 points on 41.7-percent shooting on 3-pointers last season, when the Chippewas finished 25-8 and earned their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

“It’s fun because I have confidence in myself. I know my abilities and I just have to keep performing the way I have.”

So, what has worked for Kelly this season? Where has she improved?

“Well, basically a lot is working, my driving, my penetration, my passing, getting assists and shooting the 3," she said. "So basically whatever they’re giving me I’ve got to take the shots, I’m reading as they read."

And now teams can’t try to push Kelly to her left, because she can handle the ball well with either hand.

“Over the summer I just beat myself up a lot, like I’m tired of people thinking I don’t have a left hand so I got stronger at it, so teams can’t say, ‘send her left, send her left,’" Kelly said. "Because now I’ll teach them if they send me left I’ll beat them left.".

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Kelly was brilliant in Central's 80-70 comeback win over rival Western Michigan in Kalamazoo on Saturday, scoring 31, including 20 first-half points, 14 coming in the opening quarter when she set the tempo.

Central was forced to come back from a 55-44 third-quarter deficit and Kelly played a key role, scoring off a driving layup for a 60-59 lead and another driving layup to open up a 10-point lead (69-59) with just under four minutes left.

Kelly also was proud of her teammates, especially freshman guard Molly Davis and 6-0 senior forward Gabrielle Bird for stepping up during the pivotal 25-4 run.

Davis connected on a running 3-pointer as time expired in the third quarter to pull the Chippewas within 57-52, then opened the fourth with a 3-pointer before making three free throws, leading to Kelly’s layup for the 60-59 lead.

“Molly is amazing, you have to keep her up because she was down in her head and I had to keep giving her confidence,” Kelly said of Davis, who scored 17 of her 19 points in the second half. “I know she can pick herself up, but I have to tell her that ‘you can do whatever you want out here,’ so keep giving her confidence and it’s fun because if you have somebody else scoring it takes a lot of load off yourself.”

Bird made a 3-pointer after a dribble-drive move by Kelly for a 63-59 lead, then hit a short jumper to push the lead to 67-59.

A rising star

Kelly signed to play at DePaul after leading King to two state semifinal appearances, but quickly transferred to Central and then played a key role for the Chippewas during their run to the Sweet 16 as a freshman two years ago.

Kelly joined a star-studded group at Central — MAC player of the year Tinara Moore, Presley Hudson and Reyna Frost — and proved to be the missing link to take the Chippewas to greatness, starting with the MAC tournament championship, then earning upset wins over LSU and Ohio State, their first ever victories in the NCAA Tournament.

That year, Kelly shot 62.5 percent from 3-point range during postseason play (15 of 24), scoring 26, including five 3-pointers in a 96-91 MAC title game win over Buffalo.

Central didn’t match the record-setting 30-win season last year, or win the MAC championship, but the Chippewas did earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament with their 25 wins, then pushed Michigan State to the limit before an 88-87 loss despite 34 points from Frost, 20 from Hudson and a 24-point, five-assist effort from Kelly.

With Moore gone after the 2018 season and Frost — the 2019 MAC player of the year — and Hudson graduating last year, Kelly knows this is her team and she’s making the most of her opportunity as a leader.

Kelly is doing everything in her power to make sure Heather Oesterle’s first season as head coach is a successful one. Oesterle played at Michigan under Sue Guevara in the early 2000s, then was an assistant under Guevara at Central for nine years before Guevara retired last summer.

“It’s hard to beat somebody on their home court, especially our rivals so it feels good to give our coach (Heather Oesterle), since this is her first year (as head coach), a good win like this against Western, so it’s important,” Kelly said of Oesterle. “We didn’t change faces, just got a new assistant and Coach G (Guevara) is still around.

“Everybody has a bigger role now, everybody needs to step up and everybody has to step up. In any game, somebody can step up and shine. Heather’s been fun to play for because nobody has a specific role, your spot can be taken any day.

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"Everybody has a chance to play and she lets everybody play freely so you shouldn’t stress or worry, if you miss a bad shot don’t look at the bench, keep going and get back on defense. She gives us confidence.”

When asked if she keeps in touch with Winfield, Kelly replied: “Coach Winfield is like a Dad to me. so I always keep in contact with him. I write him on my pair of shoes every day, him and my Mom and my niece. I have their names printed on my shoes.”

Program still sharp

Guevara attended the Central-Western game, sitting a couple of rows behind the Chippewas’ bench to get a good view of Oesterle and Kelly at work.

“Like I told Michael, Heather is prepared,” Guevara said of her talk with CMU athletic director Michael Alford of Oesterle after announcing her retirement. “She’s been with me for nine years and the last five years she was completing my sentences before I was done. She knows what to do and I think that it’s awesome that she gets to continue to do it as a head coach at Central Michigan.

"She’s earned her stripes and now she gets to wear them here in maroon and gold.”

Guevara said she is enjoying the retired life, already taking a two-week trip to Spain and planning to take a trip down south later this winter. She felt she left the program in good hands, and in good shape.

“I think if you looked at what we returned, for Twin (Kelly) to step out like she is, we’d see that all the time, but she always had Presley and Reyna, but now to see her shine when it’s her turn, but then also the emergence of Maddy Watters,” Guevara said. “She (Watters) started for us every game last year and now her defense has really improved, she’s looking to shoot the 3.

“If you look at Gabby Bird, I think she’s in the running for (MAC) sixth player of the year with the way she’s filling it up on the stat sheet, and of course there’s Molly Davis. We all knew what kind of a player Molly Davis was, and it wasn’t about Molly filling Presley’s shoes because nobody is going to do that. But Molly isn’t playing like a freshman. She’s starting every game, and then you got Bush (6-1 junior Kyra Bussell) and she’s making a difference.

“I think everybody looked at what was lost, but with everybody that left you see the cream rise and it’s rising, and the one thing that Twin (Kelly) is doing is she’s letting the game come to her. She’s not forcing anything, and I think you see the depth of her shot, that’s what surprises people, how well she’s shooting the 3-ball, and the fact that now she’s hard to guard because she’s shooting the 3-ball so well as well as penetrating and she’s even going left now where before she only owned a right hand.”

Oesterle, meanwhile, is enjoying running the show.

“This year has been great, I say it all the time the kids have bought in with the coaching change,” Oesterle said. “We’ve gotten really good leadership out of our three captains (Bird, Micaela Kelly and MacKenna Kelly). It’s been a fun year and we go into every game with where we want to have fun in the game and we want to play loose.

"And I think we’re doing a good job of that, but this is a good win against a very good Western team.”

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And, of course, Oesterle is thrilled to have Kelly running the show.

“She’s just a special player that when she’s hitting that 3 she’s tough to guard because she’s so fast at getting to the basket, and then we have shooters around her, so she’s a tough matchup for people,” Oesterle said. “She worked really hard this summer. We lost two Hall of Famers last year and her game has gone to another level.”

Guevara left University Arena with a smile, knowing the Chippewas won and she didn’t need to go home and watch a replay of the game, then prepare for the next game at Eastern Michigan.

And Oesterle also left with a big smile, knowing the Chippewas beat their top rival and she had Kelly as a leader who has shown she can get the job done at a high level.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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