Basketball was her first love. Now, Riley Nelson channels that passion in her battle back from injury

Photo by Brieanna Andrews/Maryland Terrapins

With the Terps up five in a mid-January tilt against Purdue, freshman Riley Nelson boxed out her defender, positioning herself for the offensive rebound. With her effort, she traced the missed shot – tiptoeing the baseline before making a diving save to keep the ball in play. 

In the process of doing so, Nelson fell and landed awkwardly on her right knee, heading to the locker room soon after, in immense pain.

“When I landed, I heard two pops,” said Nelson. “I [was] hurt, in a lot of pain. The first thing I said to my trainer was, ‘I think it’s just sprained … just a bone bruise.’”

After leaving College Park’s XFINITY Center with more questions than answers, she did what any college freshman would do – turn to her parents for guidance.

“If I ever [have] a question, I know my dad will always be there for me,” Nelson stressed. “I know he’s always listening … to any problems I have.”

She credits her father, a former collegiate player and coach, for introducing her to the game of basketball at a young age, serving as a key role model in her basketball career.

The hard work and parental guidance paid off.

Jordan Brand All-American. 2023 McDonald’s All-American. Two-time Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year. Montgomery County WBCA Player of the Year. Team USA Finalist.

The decorated list stretches beyond comprehension.

Nelson dominated throughout high school, picking up accolade after accolade – slotted as ESPN’s No. 18-ranked player in the nation (Class of 2023).

The five-star recruit ultimately chose the Terps, with an early commitment to Maryland towards the beginning of her junior year at Clarksburg High School. Nelson cited the program’s “family atmosphere” and the assurance that she’d be “taken care of” in College Park.

“All the other visits I went on really didn’t feel like [how] Maryland felt. They really cared about my personal development,” Nelson said. “I felt like there was no reason to wait. My heart was in it.”

The 6-foot-2 guard arrived in College Park last fall and quickly built a role for herself within the Terps’ veteran-heavy rotation.

“There’s really no comparison,” said Nelson on the jump from high school to collegiate hoops. “There’s much more that goes into a college game … a lot more preparation.”

The two levels of basketball are drastically different, but Nelson managed to fit in just fine early on.

Even with her playing time spiking up and down – ranging from a season-low four minutes to a season-high 33 minutes – throughout the first three months of Maryland’s season, the freshman found ways to reveal her impact. Whether through efficient scoring, rebounding or defending, she helped Maryland stack wins.

One thing was certain: the Terps would need Nelson’s energy and quality minutes to close out the regular season and pursue a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Then came the injury against Purdue.

A report days later confirmed that Nelson had torn her ACL – and would be effectively out for the remainder of the 2023-24 campaign.

The season-ending injury brought a massive blow to the Terps’ squad and the season outlook as a whole. Furthermore, it meant the start of a daunting rehab and recovery process for Nelson.

“It’s easy to get into a negative headspace when you’re dealing with something like this. Everything’s telling you that you may not be the same when you get back, or that you’re going to be slower,” Nelson said. 

Through the first stage of recovery, it was the sport as a whole – the game that her dad first introduced her to – that kept her in check mentally, helping shift her vision back in the right direction.

“Being around basketball is what kept my head held high … and motivated in knowing that my career isn’t over. This is not the last thing that’s going to happen to me,” she said.

In constant physical therapy sessions on the side of XFINITY Center’s main court, Nelson says seeing her team practice and maintaining a closeness to the game is “all the motivation” she needs on her road to recovery.

“Sitting on the sideline, you have all this energy, and you just want to apply it to help your team,” said Nelson. 

Though the freshman is unable to currently contribute on the court, her overwhelming maturity, positivity and overall outlook for the future is remarkable.

“I’m going to be back on this court and give it everything I have. This is only a bump in the road, a part of my basketball experience … I’m going to be back stronger,” Nelson said.