Caesar salad, special socks: Superstitions helped USI standout become nation's top shooter
EVANSVILLE — Vanessa Shafford is a bit superstitious.
Kind of. It depends on what’s working.
“If I play good one game,” she said, “I have to do the same thing the next game.”
Depending on performance, that can change. Right now, when the University of Southern Indiana women’s basketball team has a home game, Shafford goes to McAllister’s and eats the same meal, a sandwich with a side of Caesar salad.
It’s not just limited to that, though. Same socks, spandex, whatever is needed to get the right results. If things go south? That’s when adjustments are needed. She’s “starting to get less creative” with the pregame meal, so that hasn’t changed as much, but other things can.
“I’ll change my hair if we lose or if we win,” Shafford said. “It’s bad, but that’s some of the stuff.”
Change, consistency, whatever — Shafford is making it work. Prior to the Screaming Eagles’ most recent game, she was the top 3-point shooter in all of Division I college basketball. That includes men’s and women’s. Gonzaga’s Brynna Maxwell now holds a slight edge, but Shafford held the top spot for the vast majority of the season.
“When you think about Vanessa — how much extra time she puts in, how hard she works at it — it’s not surprising,” coach Rick Stein said. “She’s got natural abilities and talent and athleticism, but that doesn’t always lead to being the best in the country.”
Shafford gets shots up every day, meticulously working on her game and trying to improve. As for that 3-point shooting spot, having been the top shooter in the nation? She doesn't keep it in mind.
“It’s a weird thing to hear because I don’t really like to think about it,” Shafford said. “I honestly am way too superstitious to think about it.”
‘It’s a rhythm thing’
Shafford’s game isn’t limited to the perimeter, which has made her a valuable asset for USI. Teams can’t be content with keeping her looks from outside because of her prowess in the midrange and getting to the rim.
Every day, she tries to make time to get in the gym and take shots. When something isn’t quite where she wants it to be, she goes to Stein or another staff member to tweak it. Between classes, after practice, whenever — the Linton-Stockton graduate recognizes the process.
“It’s a rhythm thing,” Shafford said. “Not (always) coming here to get a full-on workout, but just to get that touch right.”
“She’s in here all the time,” Stein added. “If anybody in the country is putting in more time on their game and their shot, I wanna see them because I’d challenge it pretty quickly.”
As for the deep shooting prowess, Shafford is team-first and refuses to take the credit. That’s the kind of approach that got her voted a team captain as a sophomore — “that doesn’t happen too often,” Stein said.
“I’m just staying consistent here. Working with my teammates every chance I can get off the court is just as important as on the court,” Shafford said. “But for me, just getting in here, trying to get better, trying to improve on things, watching film — just stuff outside practice, mainly.”
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Shafford tries to avoid looking at things from the outside, choosing to focus solely on what’s inside the program. She only recently redownloaded Twitter. She concedes that she’s not always successful at blocking outside noise — “it just depends on the day,” she said with a laugh — but focusing on the task at hand has helped her remain focused, which in turn has made her one of the most prolific 3-point threats in the nation.
“If you watch her shoot, you say, ‘Boy, she’s a natural,’” Stein said. “She knows her shot so well. … She could easily rest on being a great 3-point shooter, but she’s expanded her game tremendously.”
With the transition to Division I, Shafford’s numbers have improved. After shooting 44% from the 3-point line and being named to the Great Lakes Valley Conference all-freshman team last season, she is shooting 50% from the perimeter this season and could be an All-Ohio Valley Conference honoree.
“We want to make sure that every single one of our players that come in, our student-athletes that are here, are reaching their potential, their peak,” Stein said. “I don’t think Vanessa has hit the peak yet, but boy, she’s playing pretty darn good basketball right now.”
Stein: ‘She loves to get better’
Everything is a process for Shafford. Getting shots, watching film, talking with coaches, developing superstitions — all a meticulous procedure to get better, resulting in her being among the best perimeter threats in the country.
She does everything with a purpose, and it spreads across the team.
“She loves to play, she loves to be in the gym and she loves to get better,” Stein said. “It’s not just at her shot. She does those things in the weight room; she does those things when it comes to getting in the gym with her friends, whatever it is. She’s dialed in and there’s no question it’s paying off.”
Shafford is exactly the kind of player Stein wants and the perfect fit for a program transitioning up from Division II. While the wins haven’t been as consistent as the Eagles would like them to be at this point, they’ve given themselves a chance most nights, and Shafford and her 13.3 points per game are a big part of that.
“She’s been in the middle of everything we’re doing right now,” Stein said. “Players like Vanessa are helping that cause to make sure we’re in that boat and in the hunt and hopefully there are more (wins) to top off here.”
And when looking at her success from the perimeter and with the transition to this point, Shafford falls back on superstition. She’s not one to speak too much on the topic. With the performances she’s put together, it’s easy to see why.
“The 3-point thing, I just don’t want to jinx it,” Shafford said. “That’s the bottom line.”
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: How USI standout Vanessa Shafford became nation's top shooter