Senior Nikki Baird will be the first to admit she isn’t the flashiest or most talented player on Belmont’s women’s basketball team.
But what she lacks in skill, she makes up for in effort and intensity.
“She’s always the hardest worker on the floor no matter how she feels,” head coach Bart Brooks said. “She’s battled injuries. She’s been sick. She’s been up late studying for tests, and she comes to practice and is the hardest worker every day.”
To earn playing time, Baird had to invest in her game, something that was unfamiliar to her.
“I wasn’t really ready to have to compete to earn my spot being someone who had been good my whole life,” Baird said. “It just wasn’t something I was used to. I wasn’t doing the extra stuff.”
The COVID-19 shutdown was the perfect time to find her role on the team.
“I was like ‘well, I have nothing else to do. I’m going to get in the best shape of my life, and he’s going to have to play me,’” Baird said. “Even if I’m not going to be the most talented one, I’m going to run the fastest for the longest.”
When the Bruins returned for the next season, Brooks took notice of Baird’s improvement.
“I think she did an unbelievable job of self-reflection during that stretch,” Brooks said. “She came back a different person, different level of commitment, and began to focus on what the team needs.”
Hard work is how Baird found herself playing meaningful minutes for the Bruins.
Hailing from Wheaton, Illinois, Baird was always drawn to Nashville and wanted to compete in the NCAA Tournament. Her sister had played in four consecutive tournaments as part of the University of California Los Angeles’s women’s basketball team.
So, she decided to become a Bruin — in Nashville.
Belmont seemed like the perfect fit for Baird to fulfill her dreams.
Once she visited campus, it was obvious that Belmont was her place.
“I fell in love with the people, mostly my coaching staff and my teammates I met when I was being recruited,” Baird said.
Once she arrived at Belmont, Baird struggled to see the court. As a freshman, she even started to doubt her position on the team.
“My freshman year, there were more times where I did not enter the game than games where I did,” Baird said. “I was like ‘okay, I’ve ended up at a place that I’m not going to be able to play at.’”
Baird suffered from the pains of every freshman basketball player, Brooks said.
“She came from a high school program where she ran the team,” Brooks said. “Then she joined our program, and she didn’t know anything. She had to start over.”
Despite still seeing limited playing time in her sophomore campaign, Baird made an impact by being a role model to the incoming freshmen.
Baird fully felt like she found her niche junior year.
“My place is to keep everyone else together,” Baird said. “I try to be that good example. They know exactly what they’re going to get from me, and I’m going to play hard.”
An away game vs Tennessee Tech University her junior year best exemplified these qualities. The team was struggling to find its rhythm while Tennessee Tech was looking impossible to beat.
Trying to find a spark, Brooks inserted Baird into the lineup.
It proved to be just what the Bruins needed, as they went on to win the game.
“She didn’t score. I don’t even think she took a shot, but our team was better when she was on the floor,” Brooks said. “I think what that says about her is she was willing to do every little thing our team needed. We don’t win that game without Nikki basically being the glue for the other players.”
In March of 2022, the Bruins played the University of Oregon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. For Baird, it is still one of the best days of her life.
Playing in Knoxville, Belmont had a huge opportunity to secure a victory in front of the Bruin faithful.
“I was like ‘this is going to be the coolest thing ever,’” Baird said. “And it delivered again and again. The atmosphere was amazing, and we had a great turnout from Belmont students.”
The Bruins ended up winning the game in a double overtime game that had many twists and turns.
It was one of the most rewarding wins of her playing career, Baird said.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that our team had a ton going on behind the scenes,” Baird said. “To get that rewarding game in that atmosphere with those people was so special.”
Now a starter, Brooks is relying on Baird to be the team’s support system, especially with the Bruins’ difficult schedule to start the season.
“She understands the ebbs and flows of seasons. She’s lived through it three times,” Brooks said. “No one else on the team has lived through that as much as she has, so her leadership has grown tremendously. We’re relying on her heavily this year.”
Her dependability will be crucial as the team enters Missouri Valley Conference play, but Baird isn’t afraid of the challenge.
“I’m a Chicago kid, so I’m very excited about playing in the valley. It’ll be a lot easier for my family to get to those conference games, and it’s going to be good competition night in and night out,” Baird said. “Bart has prepared us by scheduling all these ranked teams. We’re taking a step forward each day.”
Throughout her career suiting up for the Bruins, Baird has made many memories including team retreats and meals at players’ homes where the team was able to create deeper bonds.
But now is not the time for reflection, because there’s a job that needs to be done.
Baird knows the sky’s the limit for Belmont women’s basketball.
“We’re never going to put a cap on what our success can be. I think this team can be as good as we want to be,” Baird said. “As long as we’re playing to the best of our ability every day, I do think the rest will take care of itself.” This article was written by Ty Wellemeyer