CHARLOTTE, N.C. — During her recovery from the traumatic injury she sustained nine months ago, Kentucky point guard Janee Thompson must be more tortoise than hare. Step by step, slow and steady is how she judges her rehabilitation.
"Getting better every day," Thompson said Thursday at the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Tip-Off. "I can see a little bit of progress every day. And it's been good. The process has been challenging, but it's been good."
Thompson, who had twice been named the SEC Player of the Week earlier in the season, dislocated her left ankle and broke the fibula in a game at South Carolina in mid-January. A hush came over Colonial Life Arena. In this case, silence was anything but golden.
A shadow fell over the UK team.
"That was tough," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It hurt us in two ways. It took away really who was our vocal leader and our person who was in charge of the locker room."
And it took away a key contributor from a team dependent on wearing down opponents with depth.
Thompson's return to 100-percent health remains in the future. Mitchell hopes sooner rather than later.
"She's very functional in practice," he said. "She made some great plays in practice (Wednesday). It's just volume, right now. You have to watch how much she does.
"We expect her to be full speed probably sometime before Christmas. Maybe the first game. Maybe not. We're just going to make sure she comes back the right way, and certainly not too quickly."
Earlier this month, Mitchell talked about the value of patience.
"She wants to be back now 100 percent and that's what I have to work with her on, just patience, don't get a negative attitude," he said. "People do love her so much and count on her. I know it's hard, but you can't let everybody know if it's a good day or a bad day."
Then at UK's Media Day this week, Mitchell offered an upbeat update. "The progress is terrific, and it's pointing toward her having a very healthy and productive senior season," he said.
Thompson acknowledged the difficulty in being patient.
"Because the more I do, the more I want to do, if that makes sense," she said. "So, I want to be more than my body is allowing me at times, but as the weeks go by I'm able to get past that and I see myself getting better and better."
As a senior, Thompson embraces a leadership role.
"I think that's something I've been able to do," she said. "Trying to keep the team together, and keep them steady. Just trying to help them any way I can. Trying to be an example for them on the court and off the court."
In a sense, the injury provided Thompson another chance to show her teammates the way.
"She has been through a lot of battles in her three years," Mitchell said. "So her experience is important. She understands what the program stands for."
On the court, UK looks for Thompson to use quickness to blow by defenders, defend on the perimeter and create layup opportunities.
The latter is part of Mitchell's emphasis this season on improving Kentucky's field goal percentage. More layups equals better shooting.
"She does so many things of value on and off the court," Mitchell said of Thompson. "So she's a big, big key to our team."
Under Mitchell's guidance, Kentucky has become a relevant program in the ultra-competitive world of SEC women's basketball. Although Thompson may belatedly become available, that hasn't changed. She spoke of the Final Four as one of the team goals.
"I think the sky's the limit for this team," Thompson said. "We work hard and we believe in the way we do things at Kentucky."