Posted: 5:49 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, 2017
CEDAR PARK —Before she became a basketball standout at Vista Ridge High, Nikki Cardaño-Hillary dribbled a soccer ball on neighborhood fields in Spain.
Growing up in the shadows of Santiago Bernabéu, home of the Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, she developed footwork on the pitch that would benefit her later on the hardcourt. Born in Madrid, Cardaño-Hillary saw soccer as a way of life until her mother introduced her to basketball.
“My friends and I played soccer for fun, but I preferred to play basketball in school,” said Cardaño-Hillary, who remembers shooting baskets with her mother when she was 6 years old.
Reflecting on her life on a basketball court, Cardaño-Hillary can dip into a bucket list filled with milestone accomplishments. She earned first-team all-district honors in each of the past two years and helped Vista Ridge reach the UIL state tournament during her junior season. This winter, she was named the District 25-6A MVP after the Rangers shared the district championship in their first season at the Class 6A level.
Now as a senior, Cardaño-Hillary has been selected the Central Texas girls basketball player of the year by the American-Statesman . Guiding a team that finished 28-6, she averaged 30 points, four rebounds, four assists and six steals.
The 5-foot-7 point guard will soon graduate and begin a new chapter of her life, playing for George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She plans to major in international affairs/diplomacy with an emphasis on criminal investigation.
Cardaño-Hillary spent the first 11 years of her life in Madrid. Her mother, Erin Hillary, was studying at the University of Madrid when she met her future husband, Mario Cardaño.
It did not take long for them to realize that young Nikki, who attended a bilingual Catholic school, had developed a competitive streak.
“When she competed, it wasn’t like she was competing against someone else or another team,” her mother recalled. “It was an inner competiton. She would ask herself how she could get better at whatever she just did.”
Hillary said her daughter developed a crossover dribble that dazzled teammates and opponents alike when she was a third-grader. She scored most of her points by stealing the basketball and driving for uncontested layups. Not gifted from the perimter, Cardaño-Hillary usually “threw up bricks” if she wasn’t making a layup, her mom said.
Cardaño-Hillary displayed that same wild bull mentality after she joined TeamXpress, a Central Texas club team coached by former Texas All-American Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil.
“I could see she was athletic and was probably going places, but she almost drove me crazy turning the ball over by trying to split through defenses,” Davis-Wrightsil said Wednesday.
She remembers showing Cardaño-Hillary film of Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Paul is quick and relentless, but he also knows when to slow down, make the game simpler and get his teammates involved.
“Instead of being in a Porsche and losing control of her speed, she can now drive the Porsche in complete control, rounding corners. She can now handle a finely tuned machine,” Davis-Wrightsil said.
This past season, Cardaño-Hillary was the sole returning starter for a team that graduated four college-bound players last June. Coached by Keith Allen, the Rangers fell short of the state tournament this year, losing to Converse Judson, an eventual state semifinalist, in an area-round playoff.
“If I had to describe Nikki in one word, it would be tenacious,” Allen said. “Offensively, you wouldn’t want to play against her because she’s always in your face. Her motor runs really high.”
Cardaño-Hillary chose George Mason over Seton Hall and Delaware, and Allen has some advice for the next person who coaches her.
“I would say that coach needs to give Nikki some freedom to play the way she wants to play,” he said. “The more freedom you give her, the better she’s going to do.”
As for Cardaño-Hillary, she said her competitive nature stems from watching and listening to her parents.
“Both of them are very competitive in whatever they do,” she said. “They say if you’re going to compete, you should always try to win, not just be nonchalant about it.”
A handful of quirky questions for Nikki Cardaño-Hillary, the All-Centex player of the year in girls basketball:
Who’s your favorite athlete?
Simone Biles. She has so much fun in gymnastics. I like to see people who’ve gotten to that level.
What’s been your favorite basketball moment at Vista Ridge?
Last year we were playing to go to state again and we were playing Georgetown for the sixth time in two years. It got down to the last few minutes, and we started pulling away.
People don’t know that I …
Was born with one kidney. The one I have is larger than other kidneys.
What’s your typical pre-game routine?
I put all my clothes on the same way. First, the socks then the knee pads. The right knee pad has to come on first. All the way up.
If you had your own basketball shoe, it would be called …
“Nicolie.” That used to be one of my favorite nicknames.