New London's Nalyce Dudley brought her competitive fire to Sacred Heart ... and found a starting role

Jan. 29—FAIRFIELD — She won a state championship as a senior at New London High School and then Nalyce Dudley had to start over again as a freshman at Sacred Heart University.

She had to learn the rhythms of the women's basketball team, which qualified for the NCAA tournament a year ago — no easy feat. She changed majors, from criminal justice to sports management.

"When a freshman gets here, their head wants to spin clear off their body," Sacred Heart coach Jessica Mannetti said. "It's hard. It's the most challenging transition you'll ever make because you haven't ever experienced this much failure. And I think (Dudley) struggled with it a little at first.

"Once she kind of got over that, that initial struggle where she's like, 'This is really hard,' she's like, 'Oh, my God, wait, I can do hard.' She's probably one of my bigger success stories this year."

The 5-foot-11 Dudley, who came in as a guard, is now a forward for the Pioneers out of necessity, albeit an undersized one.

She has days like she did last week against LIU, where she played just 11 minutes after picking up her second and third fouls of the game within a seven-second span in the third quarter and was subbed out.

But in Saturday's game against Fairleigh Dickinson, she was 8-for-9 shooting with 16 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes as Sacred Heart won 68-51 to raise its record to 12-9 overall, 6-1 in the Northeast Conference, tied for first with LeMoyne.

Dudley has started 13 games, averaging 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds, has been named NEC Rookie of the Week three times (Dec. 11, Dec. 25 and Jan. 10) and is tied for second in the conference in offensive rebounds with 2.6 per game.

"Honestly, it's just, like, timing the ball a little bit," Dudley said of her knack for rebounding. "As soon as I see the shot go, it's just like I sit here and try to just maneuver through and find the ball wherever it goes.

"I mean, I try my best. Coming from a guard position to now a post, just trying to step up and try my best. It's a process. I mean, there's times I get super frustrated with myself, but I know I have my teammates to support me."

Dudley was the The Day's All-Area Girls' Basketball Player of the Year in 2022 and 2023, averaging 22.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists as a senior with a career-high 39-point performance Jan. 14 at the Rose Classic in New York City.

She graduated with 1,369 career points, consecutive all-state selections and a Class MM state championship, helping lift the Whalers past Mercy for the title at Mohegan Sun Arena, 57-47.

It was around that same time that Sacred Heart defeated Fairleigh Dickinson 72-60 for the NEC tournament championship to earn an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2012, led by 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists from then-freshman Ny'Ceara Pryor.

The 16th-seeded Pioneers earned their first NCAA tournament win in program history, beating Southern University 57-47 in the First Four in Palo Alto, California, to line up a first-round matchup with No. 1 Stanford. Stanford led just 23-18 after one quarter before going on to a 92-49 triumph.

Dudley arrived on the Sacred Heart campus in July — "conditioning, practice, playing, everything," she said.

"Just the people and the atmosphere here," she said. "It's very welcoming and you know, school-wise, there's just so much support and love from everyone. I love it here. It's great. (My teammates) are just great. I'm hoping we can win the whole conference."

Mannetti said that Dudley struggled at first with some of the nuances at the guard position at the collegiate level, so the move to forward let Dudley do what comes naturally to her. Rebound. That makes the versatile Dudley a tough matchup for whomever's guarding her when she pops out to take a shot from the perimeter.

"She embraced (the move) because it wasn't as difficult to learn and it really embodies her strengths. She's a rebounding machine, she's mobile, she can get her shot up really quickly in there, she's fearless, she's aggressive," Mannetti ticked off.

"I had one of the best players in the league that was very similar to her, where as she grew in the position, we brought her out on the perimeter and then she became completely unguardable."

Dudley, the leader for a young team at New London — she was the only senior on the Whalers' seven-person state championship roster — seems to still carry herself with confidence at the next level. She's says it's due to her accepting teammates.

Mannetti says it's due to Dudley's competitive nature, something that's never waned, even as she continues the sometimes humbling learning process.

"Her motor, her competitive motor, her relentless work ethic, is what separates her," Mannetti said. "So even though she might not have all the tools, right now, to start, I think her ability to just play within her strengths and be really dependable has been great."

The Pioneers next play at Stonehill at 6 p.m. Thursday.

"I'm definitely proud of myself," said Dudley, whose sister Nyarah still plays for New London, allowing Nalyce to follow the Whalers' journey closely. "It was a surprise (to find herself in the starting lineup).

"But I told myself when I got player of the year (in high school), I told myself I knew it was going to be a lot of work. If I keep pushing, I knew I could get where I want to be."