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Former Yellowjackets’ standout Makenzie Helms enjoyed her first season competing for the women’s basketball team at the University of Nebraska. Helms played in 13 games for the Cornhuskers as a freshman this year. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletic Communications )
Makenzie Helms gets ready to make her move during a game between the Nebraska and Michigan women’s basketball teams in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletic Communications )
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In a Big Ten battle between the Nebraska and Indiana women’s basketball teams, the Cornhuskers found themselves down by 25 points in the second quarter. With 4:51 remaining in the half, former East Haven High School star Makenzie Helms checked in to the game for Nebraska.
In just seven minutes of playing time, Helms, a freshman, dished out three assists and also scored three points by hitting a basket and the subsequent free throw, helping Nebraska go on a 10-0 run. The Cornhuskers came back to tie the game in the fourth quarter before ultimately taking a 57-53 defeat. Despite the loss, Helms gave her squad a big spark and showed everyone that she was ready to play on the Division I level.
“It was tough watching the team down 20 points. It seemed like we had given up,” said Helms. “My coach threw all the freshmen in and gave us a chance. We helped bring the team back. That game was the most memorable for me, especially the ‘and-1.’ Indiana is one of the top teams in the Big Ten, and I was able to leave my mark in that game.”
Nebraska’s matchup against Indiana was the first of seven-straight games in which Helms played for the Cornhuskers. In the team’s last game of the season, she played two minutes when Nebraska lost to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. When all was said and done, Helms appeared in 13 games for Nebraska in her freshman campaign. Helms said that getting playing time down the stretch as a freshman gave her confidence as she continues to advance in the program.
“It was huge for me. My coach trusted me,” Helms said. “Going in and knowing that I can show the hard work I put in was really special. Hopefully, it is a sign of what’s to come for next year. I’m definitely going to take more of a leadership role.”
Helms, a 5-foot-8 guard, had an amazing two-year career at East Haven after attending the Loomis Chaffe School for her first two years of high school. Helms scored 1,073 points in her two seasons with the Yellowjackets, helping them win a Class M state title in 2018.
In her senior year, Helms broke East Haven’s single-season records for the most points (607) and 3-pointers (75) made in a season. She averaged 26.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 3.3 steals per game on her way to being named the Player of the Year by the SCC, Gatorade, the Coaches Association, and the New Haven Register.
Helms made the All-SCC First Team, the Register’s All-State and All-Area teams, and the New Haven Tap-Off Club All-Area Team for the second-straight year as a senior. She also secured a spot on the All-State Class L Team after having made All-State for Class M in her junior year. Helms was also a New Haven Tap-Off Club Scholar Athlete and was selected as East Haven’s Most Valuable Player in her senior season.
Helms, who wears No. 1, made her debut for Nebraska during the team’s opening contest against Alabama A&M on Nov. 6, recording an assist in three minutes of playing time. After entering a Division I game for the first time, Helms felt some nerves begin to set in, and she immediately understood how physical basketball was at the collegiate level.
Helms got another opportunity to play early in the season, when Nebraska faced Sacred Heart on Nov 30. With 1:24 left in the contest, Helms hit a layup to score the first two points of her college career.
“As soon as I got in, I knew I definitely had to score right now. As soon as I got the ball, I was just trying to create for myself,” said Helms. “It feels amazing. Even though it was just two points, the celebration from Nebraska was wild. They really make a big deal out of all the milestones here.”
As she was trying to make a name for herself on the court, Helms, a political science major, also made sure she also participated in the community during her first year at Nebraska. She worked with kids at the local YMCA and also helped out at local homeless shelters. Helms wound up getting named to the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team, an accolade that is named in honor of the legendary Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.
Helms has had to deal with compartment syndrome in both of her legs throughout the past few years. When she was in high school, Helms noticed that both of her legs were severely bruised while competing at an AAU Tournament in Chicago. Helms underwent surgery and was supposed to be sidelined for three months, but with her senior season of high school basketball about to get underway, she decided that she wanted to be on the court.
Helms continued to deal with her injury and was forced to undergo that same surgery at the completion of her senior season. This time, Helms waited the full three months before returning to the floor. Now, she said that she has “never felt better.”
East Haven’s girls’ basketball Head Coach Anthony Russell saw Helms persevere through her injury. Russell enjoyed watching Helms flourish as a basketball player during her two seasons with the Yellowjackets, describing her as a fierce competitor and a true student of the game.
“Makenzie didn’t get better as time went on simply because she got older. She worked at it,” Russell said. “She really could do everything: handle, shoot, pass, rebound, defend. She understood the game better than most. Her basketball IQ was amazing. I had such a great time coaching her and the teams she was on.”
After she recovered from her injury, Helms immediately hit the weight room and gained 20 pounds of muscle before heading off to Nebraska. Now, as she prepares for her sophomore season, Helms wants to contribute more on the court next year and has already set a goal of leading the team in assists.
Helms had several options when it came to playing college basketball. Ultimately, she chose Nebraska over other Division I schools like Syracuse, Wake Forest, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Kentucky, Yale, Penn, Rutgers, and Georgia Tech.
Helms said that she felt a “family atmosphere” as soon as she set foot on the Nebraska campus. Helms felt that everyone was behind her and wanted her to be there. Nebraska’s fans even tweeted at her to try and get her to attend the school.
During her freshman year at Nebraska, Helms got the words “per aspera” tattooed on her right forearm and a tattoo with “ad astra” on her left foreman. The Latin phrase “per aspera ad astra” translates to “through hardships to the stars.” As Helms works her way up the ranks in the Nebraska women’s basketball program, that phrase will constantly serve as a reminder of where she’s been and where she wants to go.
“It really signifies everything that I went through,” said Helms. “My whole life I have been pushing through, and I’m trying to reach for the stars. It’s really important for me.”
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