UK Women's Basketball

UK women's basketball: Jennings taking crash course in SEC defense

Kentucky Wildcats forward/center Alexis Jennings (35) scored 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Cats' win over Tennessee State on Dec. 28.
Kentucky Wildcats forward/center Alexis Jennings (35) scored 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Cats' win over Tennessee State on Dec. 28. Herald-Leader

It's no fun to be Alexis Jennings at practice.

The forward's name is constantly being yelled and it's not usually because Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is excited about her play.

'Tis life as a freshman post player on a Top 25 team preparing for games to start in the Southeastern Conference.

"She is sort of a slow processor as it goes to processing what needs to happen," Mitchell said of the friction between himself and the 6-foot-2 reserve forward. "So that creates some tension between us right now because we've got to get going defensively here."

Teammates like Makayla Epps and Jennifer O'Neill have drawn Mitchell's ire in the past for slow defensive development.

So they are quick to give a pat on the back or a word of encouragement.

"Coach is extremely hard on her," Epps said. "He's hard on all of us. Some days she gets it harder than all of us. She's got thick skin, a tough kid. I give her a lot of credit. Most players would get down, go into slumps. She comes in and practices well."

Jennings, who will return to her home state of Alabama on Friday as No. 11 Kentucky faces the Crimson Tide to begin league play, knows that she's thinking too much on the defensive end.

At Sparkman High School, she was an offensive force, scoring 2,594 career points. The school retired her jersey in April. The state's Gatorade Player of the Year averaged 22.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 3.2 steals a game her senior season.

Jennings knew she could score. That part was easy.

It's become evident in the past four games when she's scored in double figures, including a 27-point, eight-rebound career performance in the Cats' win over Tennessee State on Sunday.

It was the most points for a UK freshman since A'dia Mathies had 32 in the NCAA Tournament in 2010.

It also was the second highest single-game scoring output of the season for a Kentucky player behind Epps' 29 points against Oklahoma.

"She's a freshman, it's all new to her, but seeing stuff like that from a freshman, you can only imagine what she'll be like by the time she's a senior," Epps said of Jennings' scoring ability.

After averaging 2.4 points in her first nine UK games, Jennings has averaged 16.3 points in her last four games.

But on the other end of the court, she called herself "an OK defender" in high school. Now that she's in college playing at a school known for its defensive pressure, she's learning that "OK" is not OK with Mitchell.

"It's a much faster pace and I've had to learn to adjust," Jennings said. "I'm still in the process."

She snaps her fingers and says "boom, boom" when describing the speed at which the college game actually happens. As for her ability to react, she says "boom" and then pauses for five or six seconds before adding the closing "boom."

Jennings still has to fight through fatigue. She has to learn not to take plays off.

But she's getting better each game.

"I feel good about how she is progressing," Mitchell said. "One thing that is in her favor is that if she is having a good day offensively, she can really help you and make up for some deficiencies on defense.

"That's just not a good formula for success, to just score more than you give up. You just want to get solid on defense. When it finally clicks for her, we are going to have a really, really top-level player in her."

Jennings' teammates see glimpses of it every day in practice.

And when coaches are pushing the freshman hard, those teammates do what they can to offer backup.

"Sometimes you need to hear somebody's voice other than his voice," said O'Neill, a senior who has had her share of back and forth with Mitchell, too.

The more Jennings plays, the better she'll be on both ends of the court, O'Neill said.

"She knows what she's supposed to do, but her reaction to it or her recognition of it is late," the senior guard said. "But I think that comes with playing more games. ... Things become slower for you and you're able to react quicker and play in the flow."

Sophomore guard Linnae Harper has been watching Jennings get more comfortable with each passing game. She sees big things coming from the UK freshman.

"Her confidence level has increased drastically, and day by day it's making a difference in the game," Harper said. "She's real tough and I think that's going to help us when we start SEC (play)."