In a state like Kentucky, where toddlers often ditch their pacifiers shortly before picking up a basketball, the advice from Alyssa Rice’s parents seems quite foreign.
A few years ago when the UK senior center was making the decision about where to play her college basketball, Laurie and Thomas Rice offered this to their youngest daughter: “If basketball was taken out of the equation, could you still see yourself at this university?”
It’s how Rice ended up at Kentucky.
It’s part of why Rice stayed at Kentucky even as player after player parted ways with the program in 2016.
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“Obviously, basketball is a huge part of what I do. But all of the opportunities and things I’ve been a part of outside of basketball have been amazing,” Rice said of her four-year career at Kentucky, which will be celebrated on her Senior Day alongside Jessica Hardin on Sunday.
The 6-foot-3 center from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, probably won’t find her name many times in the Kentucky record book like many seniors who have graduated before her.
Rice quietly is having her best year as a Cat, averaging 6.8 points and six rebounds a game. She leads the team in blocked shots with 31 and in charges taken with 16.
But without hesitation, Coach Matthew Mitchell puts Rice among the all-time greats, calling the senior “one of the more amazing people to come through” the program.
“She has been one of the most balanced people, and one of the people that have come in and taken advantage of what the program really offers,” Mitchell continued. “In every way imaginable, she’s grown.”
While leading UK in blocked shots and charges drawn is nice, Rice also has led groups of Southeastern Conference athletes and been a part of groundbreaking NCAA student committees.
Rice has been part of groups that have helped change the way rules are enforced and how athletes are treated by their schools.
“My involvement with the SEC has really opened my eyes to the options that are out there and I just want to continue to make the experience of the student athlete the very best it can be,” said Rice, who has plans to get a master’s degree in sports administration.
The forward has been a leader in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, led Bible studies for kids in the community and helped build houses for impoverished families in Panama as part of a UK service trip.
“I always wanted to do things beyond basketball, not be limited to basketball,” said Rice, who also has served as a mentor to a local 16-year-old girl.
The self-proclaimed perfectionist has done all of this while maintaining a near-perfect grade-point average. Ask Rice about her biggest challenges at Kentucky and she points to her only classes that didn’t result in an A.
There was the chemistry class she ended up not even needing after changing her major to finance and a recent class on taxes.
“And that’s going to be unnecessary, too, because they just changed the tax law,” she laughed.
There have been plenty of challenges off the court, too. That exodus in 2016, when UK lost half of its players in the course of a few months, was difficult.
“At times it looked dark, but I’m really proud of my decision to stay,” Rice said.
Her parents asked a lot of pointed questions about the departures. They checked in on their youngest daughter, regularly making sure there wasn’t anything bad going on behind the scenes.
“She said, ‘There’s no place I want to be but Kentucky,’” Laurie Rice said this week.
That was enough for them.
That decision meant the world to her head coach.
“She’s one of them that will stick in my mind and my heart forever because that was a really difficult time, and Alyssa and the loyalty and support and energy that she gave,” Mitchell said.
This season, in which Kentucky likely will not reach 20 wins or reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly a decade, has been especially challenging for Rice.
And not because of the win-loss record.
“She’s really had to work at putting herself out there,” Laurie Rice said.
Her daughter, happy to assume a behind-the-scenes role and lead by example, has had to become a vocal, demanding leader.
With so many young players, especially in the post this season, Rice has had to venture out of her comfort zone.
Just this week Mitchell saw what he called her “total investment” in practice.
“There she is right in the middle of the huddle putting herself out there, sticking her neck out there, telling them what they needed to hear not what they wanted to hear,” he said, “and they respect her for that as do I.
“It has been a great year of growth for her. I think it will benefit her as she moves along in life.”
That’s ultimately why her parents advised her to take basketball out of the equation when she picked her college.
But her choice — and this sport she loves at this place she loves — have forever altered Rice’s life.
“Basketball can lead you down so many great paths,” the senior said. “I had no idea how many opportunities would come just through dribbling a basketball.”
No. 2 Mississippi State at Kentucky
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Mississippi State 29-0 (15-0 SEC), Kentucky 14-15 (6-9)
Series: Kentucky leads 27-18
Last meeting: Mississippi State won 74-55 on Feb. 11 at Starkville, Miss.