Both eyes squeezed tightly closed, Batouly Camara falls backward and hopes to hear a whistle.
“I used to fall before they hit me,” Kentucky’s freshman forward said, laughing. “That’s happened a couple games; I’d fall and I’d open my eyes, and no one is there.”
If taking a charge is an art form, Camara had zero interest in setting foot in that museum.
“I’d never taken a charge in high school, in AAU, elementary school,” she said. “Never in my life.”
But watching fellow forward Evelyn Akhator make it look so easy, seeing how the play could change a game and understanding that being able to do it was the only way she was going to spend much time playing for Kentucky this season, Camara decided to learn.
She took her second and third charges of the season in a loss at Ole Miss, and for that she earned her first career start against Tennessee a few days later.
“We just went with everyone who can take a charge,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of his decision to change the Cats’ starting lineup before the win over the Lady Vols. “We’ve got to take charges to be a good defensive team.”
After the No. 12 Cats gave up their most points of the season and their most field goals of the season to Ole Miss, Mitchell wanted to send a message.
“Those people have to go to the bench that won’t take a charge on this team,” he said last week. “They have to go to the bench. We are going to get people on the floor that take charges.”
That means Akhator probably will never leave the floor.
The national Junior College Player of the Year is a charge-taking machine for Kentucky this season, notching 24 of the Cats’ 33 total.
Just 18 games into this season, Akhator has drawn as many charges as Kentucky’s top player last season in Jennifer O’Neill, who had 24 drawn charges after 34 games.
Akhator came to UK ready-made to take charges. It was a point of emphasis at her junior college, where the coaches had drills that forced the players to take charges and throw their bodies on the floor for loose balls.
“I had to get used to it,” the native of Lagos, Nigeria, said. “Then I was sort of excited about it.”
She gets downright giddy when the scouting report points out an opposing player who is prone to player-control fouls. Against Louisville, Akhator kept that bit of information about Myisha Hines-Allen tucked away.
Then Akhator proceeded to draw five charges in that game.
She uses her ability to take charges as a way to get out of post-practice punishments. Coaches use a points system in practice. A foul is minus 1; a turnover is minus 2.
Drawing a charge is plus 5. Akhator likes that math.
“That really helps me because I make a lot of mistakes,” she said, smiling.
There’s not much to Akhator, whom Camara playfully described as “skin and bones,” which makes the junior’s ability to take a charge that much more impressive.
“I don’t know how she walks,” Camara joked.
It’s not always easy, Akhator said.
“My butt and my chest hurt,” she confided. “I can see why people don’t like taking charges. You have to sacrifice, take the pain and stuff like that.”
The staff is grateful every day, Mitchell said.
“That is a huge play,” he said of a drawn charge. “Those are not things that you can take for granted. The kid just gives her body up for the team, and that needs to become contagious for us.”
He emphasizes it in practice and then made it a prerequisite to start games — except for Makayla Epps, who has yet to draw a charge this season, but he said he needed a fifth player to start against Tennessee.
Akhator took a huge charge against Tennessee star Diamond DeShields near the end of that game when the Cats were struggling to close out the victory.
Kentucky (15-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) is going to need those toughness plays if it wants to continue to get victories this season, Mitchell said.
“We are not a shot-blocking team, and we are not walking on the floor and showing up with our talent and beating people,” he said. “We have to play really, really strong team defense.”
And that includes taking some charges Thursday night against Vanderbilt (14-5, 3-3).
“We need to out-tough people; we’re going to have to out-tough Vanderbilt,” he said of the Commodores, who lead the league in field-goal shooting at 46.9 percent.
“If we don’t play tougher than them, they’ll beat us,” the coach said. “There’s no question about it. We have to be tougher than our opponent.”
It becomes a mind-set, Akhator said. She loves to block shots and leads the team in that stat with 24 this year. The forward loves to get steals and is second on the team with 27.
But her favorite kind of defense seems to be the one that leaves her body hurting afterward.
“A charge is like taking away two points from their team,” she said. “It’s fun to take away two points. … Even if you block their shot, there’s still a possibility that they’ll get it back. So taking charges is like taking points away from them.”
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Vanderbilt 14-5 (3-3 SEC), Kentucky 15-3 (4-3)
Series: Vanderbilt leads 27-22
Last meeting: Kentucky won 67-61 on March 5 in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
UK’s probable starters
Reserves: 1-Batouly Camara, F, 6-2, Fr.; 2-Ivana Jakubcova, C, 6-6, Sr.; 24-Taylor Murray, G, 5-6, Fr.; 45-Alyssa Rice, C, 6-3, So.
Vanderbilt’s probable starters
Reserves: 12-Myka Dancy, G, 5-9, So.; 15-Jasmine Jenkins, G, 5-8, Sr.; 24-Kristen Gaffney, F, 6-1, Jr.; 25-Morgan Batey, G, 5-10, Sr., 35-Kendall Shaw, C, 6-4, Jr.; 41-Miaya Seawright, G, 5-7, So.; 44-Rayte’a Long, F, 6-0, Sr.