Alexis Jennings could have plastered the walls of her locker with motivational quotes featuring fuzzy kittens hanging upside down telling her to “Hang in there!”
She could’ve sipped all of her beverages in a mug with a smiley face reminding her to “turn that frown upside down.”
None of that would’ve mattered last season.
The voices in the Kentucky forward’s head were just too loud.
Maybe I just can’t play defense like that.
Maybe I’m just not capable of doing what coach asks.
As a true freshman, all of those thoughts took up residence in her head. A year later, she realizes they held her back.
It’s amazing how everything just starts to fall in line for you when you decide to have a positive attitude.
UK’s Alexis Jennings
“It’s amazing how everything just starts to fall in line for you when you decide to have a positive attitude,” Jennings said.
That attitude adjustment, an attempt to get her body into better shape and a renewed focus on her game has made Jennings a force for eighth-ranked Kentucky, which meets No. 13 Duke in Rupp Arena on Sunday night.
“Once you get confidence, you feel like nobody can stop you,” said the sophomore, who is averaging 11.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots for the unbeaten Cats. “And that’s the mentality you want to go into every game with.”
It absolutely, positively was not the attitude she went into every game with last season.
And when Coach Matthew Mitchell would try to discuss it with her — sometimes in a less than comforting way — she’d just go deeper into the negativity.
“One thing that’s holding her back is sort of the raincloud mentality, maybe looking at the glass half empty,” Mitchell said of his forward. “We want to flip that.”
Sometimes just looking at things differently can equal big changes.
“I really asked her to improve her attitude,” Mitchell said of their chats this summer. “Not that she was a bad kid or caused any trouble, just wanted her to be more positive as a person.”
So she tried to do all of that and more.
“I changed my attitude and approach to things and I was like, ‘Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s not him, not just coach picking on me,’” Jennings said with a quiet smile on Friday.
First she got in better shape. Last season she would go up the floor once and then on the way back, she’d look to the bench for a sub.
“At this time last year, she just couldn’t play through fatigue or fatigue would hit much earlier,” Mitchell said. “She’s done a great job getting in better condition. And she’s worked real hard.”
Part of that conditioning meant footwork drills that have made her a much more effective defender. It was frustrating for her last season when her teammates would play incredible defense deep into the shot clock and then Jennings would give up something easy in the post.
She fixated on that. And then Mitchell would bench her for 10 to 15 minutes to make a point. It all spiraled and made their relationship rocky.
That changed this summer, too.
I’ve got to give her the opportunity to bounce back. So it’s all a learning process, trying to coach better. She’s definitely done her work trying to improve her attitude.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell
“We’re just really honest with each other now,” said Jennings, who set new career highs in points (28) and rebounds (13) earlier this season against Morehead State.
He adjusted his attitude, promising to not make it a battle of wills, as she altered hers.
“Sometimes her passion comes out as maybe being a bit stubborn, and it’s not something she can’t bounce back from,” said Mitchell, who admitted that he has a bit of that, too.
“I’ve got to give her the opportunity to bounce back. So it’s all a learning process, trying to coach better. She’s definitely done her work trying to improve her attitude.”
They had a similar stubbornness situation against Louisville last week in Rupp Arena, where Mitchell benched her to prove a point.
Instead of leaving her there to stew, he put her back in the game.
She responded with better defense and was a major factor in the second half against the Cardinals, finishing with 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
Kentucky (9-0) will need a big game from Jennings on both ends of the floor against the Blue Devils, whose leading scorer is 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Azura Stevens.
Mitchell is much more confident that Jennings — who had 17 points to lead UK in its loss at Duke last season — will be a factor.
And not just in this game, but in every game going forward.
“I’m real hopeful for her future,” he said on Friday. “She needs to get better defensively, she needs to get better rebounding. She needs to think of herself as more of a complete player. … So there’s still room to grow, but she’s shown a willingness to grow.”
No. 13 Duke at No. 8 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena
Records: Duke 8-2; UK 9-0
Series: Duke leads 5-1
Last meeting: UK lost at Duke 89-68 last season.
Radio: WLXG-AM 630