It was the late 1990’s in a Starkville that many patrons and natives of the town today might not have recognized if they were to see it again.
The Mississippi State football Bulldogs were at the top of the Southeastern Conference Western Division and competing for conference titles and the Bulldog defense was unrivaled across the landscape of college football. In what was the toughest conference in the sport at the time and on a defense filled with National Football League caliber players, there was a defensive back many would consider undersized, willing to sacrifice every part of his body to jar a football loose or make a game-changing play.
Tim Nelson was one of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn’s prized possessions on that Bulldog defense and he helped MSU to the Western Division crown and countless other victories along the way.
Just a couple of blocks away there was another athlete on the Bulldog soccer fields by the name of Shayla Holmes. Nelson and Holmes hit it off as friends shortly after the two came to campus together as freshmen and Holmes was with child.
A relationship was built during their time at MSU that would later lead to a family.
Little did anyone know just how special the union of the two would become and the child that came up under their watch.
Nelson and Holmes raised daughter Jazzmun, who had no other choice but to be an athlete.
It came naturally for Jazz. Shayla surely had her kicking around a soccer ball early, but it was the basketball that she would take to the most.
“From a young age, Jazz picked up a basketball and never put it down,” Tim said. “Probably around 7 or 8, I knew that she would be something special. She always played with older girls and she always dominated. Her ball-handling skills were above everyone else, but because she was so much smaller than everybody, she passed it to bigger players and let them make the plays. It was how she became a point guard.”
Shayla and Tim ultimately coached Jazz to play the game of basketball. Shayla was the Mississippi Ballers AAU coach and helped get Jazz’s name out to college coaches as well as develop her game.
For Tim, it was mom who was able to get through to her a little more when she was being hard-headed. Trying to translate the football background to basketball didn’t come easily.
“It was trial and error, to be honest with you," Time joked. "The approach that I learned with football didn’t work with females. I had to evolve and understand I had to find a way to reach her. I had to talk to her about the differences between coach and dad. When she understood, she began to flourish and become a good point guard.”
Holmes worked her way into position to be recruited by SEC teams and was a top 100 prospect by her senior season. At Harrison Central, her versatility shined beyond a label of point guard as she averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 4.7 steals a game. She was a two-time Dandy Dozen selection and the Most Valuable Player of the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star Classic.
Quite simply, she became a major priority for coach Vic Schaefer and his staff to keep her home. They just capped off their first postseason appearance as a program in the Women's National Invitational Tournament and had a top 25 recruiting class signed.
On the surface, it looked like a slam dunk for Schaefer with two Bulldog parents and an instate kid. It wasn’t going to be as easy as it might have seemed getting Holmes on board, however. Shayla and Tim let her make her own decision and she had options.
“I didn’t pressure her," Tim said. "I never told her where I wanted her to go. She was pretty high on Florida and we really liked Amanda (Butler). We came to Mississippi State and I knew what she was going to see, but she didn’t expect it. It got her attention.”
Holmes was blown away by the environment in Starkville and there was that sense of home that came with it. Tim remarked of the job that Schaefer did selling the program with former assistant Aqua Franklin. There wasn’t much to sell in the form of results to that point, but the no-nonsense approach by the staff really stuck with the Nelson’s and with Holmes so she chose the Bulldogs.
It was a four-player signing class in 2015 with five-star Teaira McCowan headlining the group and Zion Campbell and Jonika Garvin also signing on with the Bulldogs. Holmes was the lowest rated of the four and the only under 6-0. Like father Tim, she played a much bigger role than that over the next four years.
A year ahead of Holmes her freshman year was Morgan William, a player at least three inches shorter, but who was turning heads for her ability to command at point guard and make big plays when needed.
Assistant coach Dionnah Jackson-Durrett replaced Franklin and worked with Holmes her freshman year. She’s watched her development take off each year, but the road was bumpy getting to the end result as a starter in 2018-19. Those first few years were a grind.
“It’s always going to be hard for players that were good in high school that are giving their all to take a seat behind somebody that’s better, more experienced,” Jackson-Durrett said. “In their head, they know they can be just as good or better. She had to understand that it’s a process.”
William had big moments in her freshman year and it was evident that she was going to be the point guard for the duration. Holmes learned behind her and showed promise as she was an 83 percent free-throw shooter and dropped in 71 assists in year one.
Minutes increased by Holmes’ sophomore year and she bumped her assist total to 98 with a 2.3 assist/turnover ratio. She was doing her job when called upon, but Holmes still admits frustrations. Coming off the bench wasn’t something that she saw for her career and especially wasn’t something she wanted to do for at least three years.
There were times where she thought about leaving, but she always would lean on Tim and Shayla and they were there for perspective.
“There were a lot of days where I called home and I wasn’t sure if basketball was for me anymore and I wanted to just be a regular student,” Holmes remembered. “My parents told me to stick with it and do what I’ve got to do. They told me that I’ve worked all of my life for this and there was no reason to quit now.
“My dad probably went through the same things that I went through and it helped me through it all. It kind of made me the person that I am today to sit, watch and learn what coach wants from his point guards.”
Holmes played solid minutes in the national championship game against South Carolina as a sophomore booking 17 minutes and scoring 17 points. She had scored 14 points and dished out six assists with just one turnover against DePaul in the game that sent MSU to the Sweet 16. It was that day that many people began to see just how good the Bulldogs had it at the point guard position.
As a junior, Holmes had settled into her role behind William and was confident in it. She won the Sixth Player of the Year award from Schaefer last season averaging 14.8 minutes and playing in every game. She averaged just 4.2 points per game but had 105 assists and her assist/turnover ratio grew to 2.8.
In a key spurt against South Carolina at home last season, Holmes provided a spark that lifted MSU to a win. She scored six points and had eight assists and some critical defensive plays that put the Bulldogs over the top and ended a skid against the Gamecocks on a historic night in Starkville. That night helped her get ready for when it was her time to shine in 2019.
“Coach Schaefer wants a particular type of point guard," Jackson-Durrett said. "He has high expectations for them. When she learned and understood how to meet those expectations and that she had to continue to get better and learn from Morgan, Jazz became a better player.”
The moment William left the locker room for the final time, Holmes took ownership of the team. It was a rite of passage of sorts with the end of an era and beginning of another. Though this era will only last a year, Holmes was determined to leave her mark.
“Being the starting point guard is not easy," Holmes said. "People may think that I have an easy job but I really don’t. All of the responsibilities fall back on me and I’m basically (Schaefer) on the court. Me being a backup for three years did nothing but prepare me and I can’t be anything but grateful.”
Schaefer has lobbied to anyone that will listen that he has the country’s best point guard and it’s becoming harder to argue with each passing game. Holmes averages are naturally up across the board with more playing time, but her command of the team is what has been extraordinary. She averages 7.6 points, 5.4 assists and just 1.2 turnovers per game. She leads the country in assist/turnover ratio by a fairly large margin at 4.53.
The recent SEC Tournament numbers might be mind-boggling to some, but it didn’t surprise her coaches. She played an average of 37 minutes and had 18 assists and just two turnovers in three wins. She also had 28 points in three games, had 10 rebounds and seven steals to earn a spot on the All-Tournament team and help the Bulldogs to a championship.
Holmes was chosen to the SEC All-Defensive team by the league coaches but was otherwise overlooked on the first and second teams. She always carries a chip on her shoulder so that didn’t gain her attention otherwise.
“I just took it with a grain of salt and went with it,” Holmes said. “I just played the game that I knew how to play and we got the results that we wanted.”
As Schaefer says about his point guard, “the only thing that matters to her is the W.”
Now Holmes is in win or go home mode. MSU will find out its road to the Final Four Monday and she will have to put it all on the line again and again until she goes home for the last time or she cuts down the nets in Tampa.
She’s one of three players that carry the title of most wins in school history as she closes in on 130 in her Bulldog career. She’s garnered two SEC Championships, two Final Four appearances, an SEC Tournament Championship and has reached at least the Sweet 16 in her first three years. She’s also top five in career assists despite spending three of those seasons as a backup and she is just 10 assists shy of a school record in a single season at 182.
All of it has made Tim and Shayla proud parents to see just how far their daughter has come. The journey from student athletes on Starkville’s campus over 20 years ago to parents of yet another MSU athlete that left her mark has been one great ride. The ride isn’t over yet.
“It’s a wonderful feeling because the journey wasn’t always easy," Tim said. "To see her where she is now, it just makes you sit back in smile. The tears, the black eyes, the crying – it all paid out. I’m mad that she has more SEC Championships than me and I might have to call coach (Joe) Moorhead and see if I can come play for him, but I’m happy to have seen her grow as a great player and a great woman.”