On the walk back from class, Jacy Bolton, a self-proclaimed farm girl, spotted a worm on the ground and began scheming.
Knowing her friend and teammate on the George Mason University women’s basketball team, Nikki Cardaño-Hillary, could handle a prank, Jacy asked Nikki to stick out her hand with the palm facing up. Right before the worm could squirm into her fingers, Nikki yanked back her hand, screaming. Then she started laughing.
It was a miniscule occasion in the life of a 22-year-old, but those are the moments that Nikki cherishes. She likes to goof around, crack jokes and laugh at life.
“I love to have fun and I love to laugh,” she said. “I do that quite often...sometimes too much.”
On the basketball court, she has established herself as a premiere player in the NCAA. She set the George Mason scoring record in just three seasons, then transferred to IU and evolved into an integral piece during the Hoosiers’ record-breaking 2020-21 season. Although her teammates dub her as one of the fiercest competitors they know, Nikki reminds herself to enjoy her time competing.
“That’s always been my thing,” she said. “I don’t play as well if I’m not having fun, so better that I do.”
After adjusting to new surroundings her entire life, most notably moving from Spain to America as a child, there is one constant Nikki never forgets — having fun.
THE BEGINNING: MADRID, SPAIN
Growing up in Madrid, soccer rivaled basketball as Nikki’s first passion. Cristiano Ronaldo was her favorite player, and Real Madrid, the hometown club, was her favorite team. When the screens were off, pick-up soccer matches around the neighborhood occupied her time – often against mostly boys.
Even though she still follows soccer to this day, Nikki spent most of her childhood dialed into basketball. She started in third grade when her mom, Erin, a former player herself, bought a hoop for Nikki and her older sister Erica. Whether it was in their driveway or in organized leagues, Nikki discovered her new passion.
Just a few years later, her life was upended. Nikki’s parents told her they were moving to America so she and her sister could have a better education. Her 12-year-old mind started racing. What about all the friends I made? Will my new classmates notice my accent? Yet the curiosity of a renewed life piqued her mind.
“I was stuck,” she said. “The thought of leaving friends sucked but I was thrilled to be able to go experience something new.”
She wasn’t completely new to American culture, though. Erin spoke to her daughters in English, so there was never a language barrier. The Cardaño-Hillarys also owned a house in Colorado where they often skied and hiked for vacation.
But they weren’t moving next to the friends she made in Colorado. They were moving to Cedar Park, Texas, a state she barely knew. About to enter a brand new environment, Nikki’s sole knowledge of her future was from a fictional children’s movie.
“All I really knew was High School Musical,” she said with a laugh.
FIRST STOP: CEDAR PARK, TEXAS
The first time Japreece Dean saw Nikki was at a middle school game. Dean, a then-sophomore starter for the Vista Ridge High school team, heard rumblings of an uber-talented eighth grader down the road. People told her the girl had potential to play on varsity as a freshman and Dean wanted to see the hype for herself. So she did.
“I remember watching her play, beat everybody, hit half-court shots and things like that,” she said.
As expected, Nikki joined the varsity squad as a freshman. There, she officially met Dean and Katrina Pardee, another teammate two years older, who remains a close friend to this day. The three played on the same high school team, AAU team and trained together on a daily basis.
“Nikki is one of those people that knows how to work, so she navigated towards people that know how to work as well,” Dean said.
Led by Nikki, Japreece and Katrina, Vista Ridge advanced to the state basketball tournament twice. Nikki and Japreece were named McDonald’s All-American nominees and all three friends earned scholarships to Division I schools.
But when they weren’t working, man, did they have fun.
Some of Nikki and her friends’ fondest memories of high school came from the rides to training. They would get McDonald’s all the time before working out, not yet understanding the importance of nutrition. While eating, the three would talk about life both on and off the court.
“I don’t know who wouldn’t want to be Nikki’s friend,” Dean said.
Now, she lists Nikki as a favorite on her ESPN account and calls her after every notable performance.
Once junior year came around, college coaches were scouting Nikki at her AAU games. Although she received multiple scholarships, the “homey feel” George Mason offered intrigued her most. Her mind was made, and soon after, the signature permanent.
It was time for Nikki to move again.
NEXT STOP: FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA
This time, the change of scenery was easier. Through phone calls and on-campus visits with future teammates, Nikki was already comfortable despite being 1,500 miles away from home.
George Mason’s first game was against No. 24 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Since her mom’s side of the family resides in Michigan, there was a large Hillary-based crowd in the stands. To add to the pressure, Nikki was informed in the locker room that she was starting.
But her carefree attitude prevented the pressure from reaching her.
“Once I was told I was starting, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, sounds good to me,’” Nikki said.
She recorded a team-high 22 points, including 5-for-10 from beyond the arc, and three steals. Bolton remembered waiting to check in at the scorer’s table, encouraging her new teammate so loudly Michigan players gave her a side-eye.
“Nikki was our fire,” she said. “It almost became an expectation for her moving forward.”
She exceeded those expectations by averaging 18 points per game and winning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. Her success helped guide the Patriots to their first season over .500 since 2004.
The following year was perhaps Nikki’s best season. George Mason finished above .500 once again and she averaged over 20 points per game, enough to earn her Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
All the while, the fun never stopped. On bus rides, the team blasted music, attempting to hit notes to the best of their non-artistic abilities.
The team’s success quickly faded in her third season. Being the star player, Nikki blamed many of the close losses on herself. It hurt, but she wouldn’t allow it to affect her and her teammates’ attitude.
“I don’t remember the losses much,” Bolton said. “Nikki really helped me keep that fun spirit about basketball.”
After finishing the season 9-21, the “what if” questions flooded her mind. What if I’m not reaching my potential at George Mason? What if I could help another team more?
After discussing with her coaches and parents, she entered the transfer portal.
It was difficult to find her new home during the pandemic. She didn’t have the leisure of official visits this go-around, something that assured her she made the right decision with George Mason last time.
But when IU’s head coach, Teri Moren, assistant Glenn Box and senior guard Ali Patberg reached out, she could feel it over the phone. The coaching staff detailed more of the on-court fit, while players filled her in on the gratifying culture. Patberg had transferred from Notre Dame, so the two were able to connect about the process.
Nikki was convinced there was a spot for her skills on the court, but more importantly, her personality fit off of it. After talking it over with her parents, she decided to transfer to Indiana University.
“Who wouldn’t want to come here?” she says now.
NEXT STOP: BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA
On a chilly December afternoon, Nikki was sitting in her room on her computer.
Her phone rang. It was Moren.
“Hey Nik, I just received word that all transfers are immediately eligible and you’re able to play in our next game,” she said.
Beaming with excitement, she hung up the phone, ran into the common area of her apartment and hugged her roommate and teammate Chloe Moore-McNeil. After expecting her hard-work in practice to pay off next year, she was given the chance to help IU this season.
Abiding by the NCAA transfer rules, Nikki had sat out the team’s first three games. When she signed with Indiana, Moren was hoping for a “seamless transition from Tyra [Buss] to Ali to Nikki” at point guard, expecting the latter to start the following season.
Once word got around about Nikki’s eligibility, other teammates called to congratulate her.
“The joy that her teammates have and how excited they are for her tells you everything about her,” Moren said.
In her first game, Nikki finished 0-3 from the field with zero points. Rust was to be expected after not playing in over nine months, so nobody overreacted. Then against Nebraska, she started 0-7, including some errant misses.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, freshman Kiandra Browne corralled an offensive rebound and kicked it back to Nikki. She buried the 3-pointer for her first points as a Hoosier. In a sigh of relief, Nikki loosened her shoulders and smiled at her teammates as they roared back.
She was having fun again.
About a month later, IU’s active leading scorer, Jaelynn Penn, opted-out for the remainder of the season, inserting Nikki as the permanent starter at point guard.
Against Iowa in March, she was tasked with guarding the NCAA’s leading scorer in Caitlin Clark. After Clark cruised to 19 first-half points, Nikki needed to lock in.
After tightly guarding her in the backcourt, Nikki perfectly timed a lunge, poking the ball out of Clark’s comfort. Once she corralled it, Nikki pressured her more, this time drawing a charge as Clark’s arm extended into her opponent’s body.
“She gets one of those pokes every game,” teammate Keyanna Warthen said. “I tell her, ‘Teach me how to do that. When I’m pressing up on the ball, teach me how to poke at the ball like that.’”
Clark looked at her coach and referee in disbelief, but the call was accurate. The veteran out-savvied the freshman.
Nikki’s nine points and one steal per game helped IU to a 16-2 conference record, the best in program history. But consistent with her entire career, she prioritized having fun. Warthen’s favorite memories of Nikki came after clutch buckets when she would turn her follow-through into a nae-nae, cracking up the bench.
“That junk was so funny,” Warthen said. “I’ll always remember that.”
“If you take things too seriously, you’re bound to mess up,” Nikki says.
When IU’s football program made their own historic run, the team met at someone’s house and watched the game as a group. Nikki hosted a video series on the team’s Twitter page asking teammates spur-of-the-moment questions. On the plane after a midseason game, Nikki left her seat to explore the cockpit. After peppering the pilot with questions, she walked back to her seat to share her new findings with her teammates. Some were interested, some were bored, but they all laughed.
“Those types of things you’ll never forget,” she said. “I don’t think it’s one specific moment but being all together whenever. In all the teams I’ve played on, I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to have fun and compete at a high level.”
As a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, IU cruised past No. 13 seed Virginia Commonwealth University and No. 12 seed Belmont University to advance to the Sweet 16. Now, No. 1 seed North Carolina State University was the only obstacle preventing the program from reaching its first Elite Eight in history.
After a back-and-forth first half, IU dominated the third quarter and took a 10-point advantage into the fourth. Nikki created offense from defense by turning three steals into easy transition buckets.
The Wolfpack initiated a late-game run by knocking down contested jumpers as the Hoosiers’ offense stalled. Clinging to a two-point lead with 21 seconds left, Nikki was fouled.
She received the ball, executed her normal one dribble routine, and released. Make. Too much on the line for a nae-nae now. The ref bounced her the ball again. One dribble. Release. Make. The 54% free throw shooter nailed two in a row.
After a North Carolina State bucket and Patberg making 1-of-2 from the line, it was a three-point game with 11 seconds left. The Wolfpack ran some screens but no clear look appeared. Nikki, standing at 5-6, got switched onto NC State’s 6-5 Elissa Cunane, who had the ball. Nikki poked the ball loose and forced Cunane to clank an errant step-back three off the backboard. No good.
For the first time in program history, Indiana was moving on to the Elite Eight.
In the locker room, Nikki’s teammates chanted “Hoo Hoo Hoo!” and belched “yeeaAAHHH” in complete elation as she grabbed the “INDIANA” sticker. The young lady who had constantly bounced from stop to stop and school to school throughout her life placed Indiana’s name in the Elite Eight, cementing her place in Hoosier lore. With sweat and water covering their jerseys, all 12 teammates circled around her, jumping up and down with arms around each other.
Now this was fun.