Natalie Kelly blocks shot.jpg

Former Albany High standout Natalie Kelly (35) blocks a shot during her freshman season at Auburn, which reached the NCAA tournament in her first season.

When Southeastern Louisiana University women’s basketball coach Ayla Guzzardo saw Natalie Kelly’s name in the NCAA transfer portal, she had just one thought:

“We’ve gotta get her,” Guzzardo said. “Must have. Must have.”

From there, Guzzardo, her staff and players went into a full-court press, if you will, in an effort to get the former Albany standout to sign with the Lady Lions after spending the past two seasons at Auburn.

“Any time that a kid like Natalie wants to come back home, you give her everything you have,” Guzzardo said. “She had our full attention. We did Zoom calls with her. We’re on the phone. We texted a lot. I even think she reached out to some of our players and got to know (some) of them. To be honest, I don’t think that we sold it. I think our players might have. They’re honest. They’re honest people. They’re not going to tell you something that’s not true. Their experience here at Southeastern has been a good one, and I think they want good people around them. It wasn’t like that before, so having great players … She might be better than them, but they still want her here because they’re going to make our program better.”

In the end, it paid off as Kelly signed with Southeastern, the school announced Thursday.

“I’m honestly so excited,” Kelly said. “Being at Auburn, it was a ways from home, about 5 ½ hours, so just the opportunity that Coach Ayla gave me to come back home and play in front of family and for the community, I’m so excited. I’m honestly ready to go, ready to get on campus and everything.”

Kelly’s arrival in Hammond took a few years to become reality after Guzzardo and her staff pursued her coming out of Albany, where she averaged 17.1 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.3 steals as a senior.

“Add us to the mix,” Guzzardo said with a laugh. “We wanted her. Watching her in high school, especially at our level, the kid could dominate. We know that, so we went after her hard, but I respect any kid that tells me, ‘I want to play bigger’ or ‘no’ or any reason that they have. I respect their decision because it’s their decision. I respected her decision, but I always told her, ‘if you ever want to come home, you let me know.’ Thank goodness she wanted to come home.”

Kelly played in 28 games in two seasons at Auburn, scoring 10 total points while averaging 3.4 minutes per game, which she called a period of growth on and off the court.

“My time at Auburn was something that I feel like was needed for me just to get away from home and experience that big stage of the SEC,” she said. “I would say I definitely learned a lot.”

Guzzardo said she and her staff continued to monitor Kelly’s career at Auburn.

“We watch them and we look at numbers and we look at their playing time, and you always wonder ‘are they going to jump into the transfer portal?’ We kind of heard that she was looking at different options, but right when she got in transfer portal, we made sure we contacted her and tried to sell our school to her,” Guzzardo said.

“We try to target each kid individually,” Guzzardo continued. “We sell our school, but we sell it to what they need. Natalie’s very different than a lot of the kids that we recruit. She’s mature. She’s been through it. She’s been at a higher even level than us, so she doesn’t need all the bells and whistles thrown at her. She wants things that are going to value her life and value her career, whether it’s her education or athletic career.”

Toward the end of this past season, Kelly said she realized she wouldn’t be returning to Auburn.

“I just talked to the coaching staff and just told them and with my other teammates leaving, my whole class kind of left,” she said. “I believe it was all of us taking the time to look back and see, definitely for me, I needed to do what was best, and leaving definitely was.”

After a few phone calls from Guzzardo and her staff, Kelly got an offer to attend Southeastern, which must replace five seniors from last season’s team.

“You just built that relationship … and I appreciated the honesty that they had, just the pure interest that they had and how much they took an interest in wanting to help me to improve my game and take it to a whole (other) level,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s family has ties to Southeastern, with her father, Jerry, and mother, Danrda, both playing basketball at the school in the early 80’s. For Natalie Kelly, though, her return to the area is all about the game.

“It is a smaller stage, but it’s basketball,” Kelly said. “Honestly, I’m just excited for the opportunity to play. No matter what scale or level it’s on, it’s the game, and that’s what I love. It’s another thing that I’m going to work toward. You can still win a conference championship in the Southland and it be like the SEC, so I still pretty much have the same goals.”

Another selling point for Guzzardo was the program’s success this season as the Lady Lions went 12-17 but advanced to the Southland Conference Tournament for the first time since the 2011-12 season. She also pointed to improvements to the team’s locker room and the University Center.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Guzzardo said. “Nobody wants to come to a program that’s a losing program, unsuccessful, not much excitement as far as the program, but we’ve got that. We’ve built that back up, and I give that to our administration. They’ve put a lot of time and a lot effort into women’s basketball in bringing it back to where it should be.”

As it stands now, Kelly, who will have two years of eligibility left, will have to sit out next season per NCAA transfer rules, but Guzzardo said that could change with circumstances involving the novel coronavirus.

“With the whole COVID-19 pandemic that’s going on, they’re possibly looking at making a rule change where she could possibly have immediate eligibility for next year, so if that is the case, we will hit the ground running with her, but she’s going to make an impact whenever she starts playing,” Guzzardo said. “Whenever she touches our floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s in a game, she’s going to make an impact because she’s going to make us better as a team. She’s going to make our players better at practice.”

“It’s a big decision, but either way, we’re happy to have her here, because no matter what, she’s going to help us, whether it’s immediately or it’ll be next year,” Guzzardo continued.

If she does sit out next season, Kelly isn’t looking at it as a lost year.

“If I have to sit out a year, I definitely look at it as a year that I can just grow and build on the court with extra workouts since I won’t be able to travel with the team and things like that, so it’s a year to put in some extra work and definitely try and get ahead with academics as well,” she said. “It’s a year that it could help me. I’m still not looking at it as a bad thing, but some extra time to grow.”

Kelly is part of a five-player signing class that features guard Bryana Langford of Jones Community College via Zachary High, forward Kacey Bradford of Jones CC, guard Chrissy Brown of Neosha CC via Carencro High and guard Cierria Cunningham of Neosha CC.

“Everybody that we’ve signed and everybody that we’ve got committed are necessities,” Guzzardo said. “We’re not just going to go out there and offer everyone, as much as people think we should, but we’re offering the kids that we feel need to be here with us, and all for different reasons.”

In addition to Thursday’s signees, the Lady Lions also got commitments from Doyle’s Presleigh Scott and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Jade Brumfield earlier this week, which Kelly said is another plus in her decision.

“It’s a lot of players that are around the area, around the state, so that adds even more excitement to it,” she said. “I am super excited. I’m excited for the team all coming together. I really believe it’s going to be something special.”

2020-21 Southeastern Louisiana Women's Basketball Signing Class

Kacey Bradford – 6-2 – F – Jackson, Miss. – Jones College/Murrah HS

Chrissy Brown – 5-9 – G – Lafayette, La. – Neosha CC/Carencro HS

Cierria Cunningham – 5-7 – G – Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Shelton State CC/Hillcrest HS

Natalie Kelly – 6-3 – F – Albany, La. – Auburn/Albany HS

Bryana Langford – 5-9 – G – Baton Rouge, La. – Jones College/Zachary HS

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