How We Do It in Mississippi

I am pretty sure you’ve never been to my hometown, but there’s a chance you’ve driven past it and not even known. It’s called Forest, Mississippi. Five different highways crisscross through Forest — the biggest one, Interstate 20, runs west toward Jackson and east toward the Alabama border. The other four are state highways. People are always either coming or going in Forest, but hardly anybody ever stays. The population there is less than 6,000.

I know about the highways because since before I was born my dad has been a truck driver, cruising all over the South in one of those big 18-wheel rigs. My dad was on the road a lot when I was a kid, and when he was gone I’d always try to envision him driving his truck on those highways. I bet you’re thinking I’m really country —being from a tiny town with a big rig in our driveway — but oh well.

To this day, I’m really grateful to my dad for making it a priority to come to my basketball games. He often changed his trucking routes to make sure he could show up in time. As a kid I thought it was normal, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to really appreciate how much work it must have been for him to juggle his routes with my basketball schedule. But he did it. He made the time. And now that I’m away at college, I see my dad as a secret superhero — because of the big parenty things, but also because of the little things he did, like making it back to my games.

One high school game really put me on the basketball map. I was in eighth grade, and I had been called up to the varsity for Scott Central High. I was by far the youngest girl on the court. Everyone in my family came to support me: my dad, my stepmom, my mom, my three brothers, my sister, and even my aunties and uncles, who I was really close with.

It was a big local rivalry game, one of those nights where the gym is full of like half the town. Our opponent, Lake High, had a really good player named Krista Donald, a junior who later played at Georgia. The gym was packed with students and parents — and also with college scouts, who were there to see Krista.

I guess it was my night. I scored 30 points, we won and after the game my coach told me that a lot of college scouts had approached him to ask, “Who was that eighth grader?”

I remember I was tingling with excitement, but I was also a little nervous.

See, I’m a little bit shy.

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I’ve always been a big goofball around my family — anyone who knows me can tell you that — but around new people I’m kind of shy. As much as I love basketball, it took time for me to get used to the attention that came with it.

I started to get letters from colleges early in high school. By my junior year, the letters were coming in every day. I was averaging almost 40 points and 15 rebounds a game. Scott Central won the Mississippi state title. It was so fun.

But all the recruiting attention — the calls, the letters — really tested my shy personality. People were asking me for autographs or pictures after games. Sometimes they would say that they were nervous to meet me … and I’d be like, “I am, too!” If anyone asked me for a picture, I’d always tell them they could only take one if they included the rest of my teammates. It made me more comfortable to have them involved.

By the end of my junior year, it was time for me to choose a college. Florida, Louisville, Kentucky and Mississippi State were my four final choices. The first three schools had more NCAA tournament appearances. And Mississippi State had had a losing record in the SEC and had missed the NCAAs that year.

But Mississippi State had one thing that none of the other teams could offer me.

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In the end, it came down to family. I have a big family, and everybody lives in Mississippi. In high school, sometimes I would have 40 or 50 family members in the stands cheering for me. (I have a lot of cousins. Loud cheerers.) When I was making my decision about where to go to college, it was really hard to imagine being far away from home — and only seeing my family a few times a year. When I looked at the map, Gainesville, Louisville and Lexington were each at least an eight-hour drive from Forest. In my heart, I knew that eight hours wasn’t going to be close enough to home.

Maybe more than anyone, I wanted to stay close to my brothers and my sister. We’ve always bonded over basketball. I used to tag along with my older brothers to the park or to the gym at our church. I was always the only girl. I learned to wait for my opportunities. I wasn’t good at scoring until I got taller, so back then I used to focus on hustling. One of the awards I’m most proud of in my life is the “Hustle Player” trophy I got in the church league as a kid. I was the only girl in the league. Without the support of my brothers and sisters, I wouldn’t have been so outgoing about playing basketball.

In 2013, right before I signed with Mississippi State, our family suffered four losses in the same year: My two aunties and two uncles — the four relatives outside my immediate family that I was closest to — passed away. It really took a toll on me, and it made me want to hold my family even closer.

I knew that being in Starkville would make it easy to see my family. What I didn’t know was that there was another family waiting for me.

I’d already gotten to know the girls on the team a little bit during my recruiting trip to Starkville. They made me feel at home right away. For a shy person, it has made a world of difference. Between us, there are no filters, no barriers, nothing. But I will tell you this: It was a big adjustment for me. They had to pull me out of my shell.

This year, we have the rowdiest team … maybe in the country. There are so many different personalities on the team that when you get us all in one place, we really get going. Like we have this game we play as a team — it gets crazy. It’s basically charades, but we’ve added a lot of new rules. We split into teams and the losers have to stay longer in the weight room, or whatever, as a punishment. We’re all trying to distract each other team. Everyone cheats — that’s how intense it is. In other words, we like to just be girls. We’re sisters. We laugh like sisters. And because of our bond off the court, I think we’re much closer as a unit when we’re playing. I’m not the loudest or funniest — by far — but I’m comfortable being myself, and I owe a lot to my teammates for making that possible.

Coach Schaefer gets us. He knows we like to stay loose, and I think a big reason is that his daughter — Blair, she’s a junior — is on the team. He treats us like adults, but I think he knows when we need to just be girls.

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We faced one of our biggest tests of the year on the road against Iowa State. Both teams were undefeated at that point. Nothing went right for us in the first half. At halftime, we were down by 17 points. When the second half started, we knew good things were bound to happen if we just kept grinding anyway. We ended up winning 85–81 in overtime. Whenever people ask about our team this year, I point to that game. I learned something then about the heart of this team: Our greatest strength is that we just don’t quit.

And that’s kind of how it’s always been my whole time here. We’re not an overnight success story. Coach Schaefer has put down a great foundation here, and everybody on the team knows that we have a special chance to take this program to another level.

But we’ve had to earn everything we’ve gotten. My freshman year, we went 11–5 in the SEC, a big improvement over the 5–11 record the year before. We lost to Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. I remember breaking down into tears after the game. Maybe as a freshman I should have been happy we had made it that far, but I was devastated. I didn’t want it to end.

My sophomore year we won 28 games, which was a school record, and went all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to UConn.

This year we went on to break the school wins record again, with 31. And now we’re back in the NCAA tournament.

After the regular season ended, Coach called a team meeting. He told us to forget about the regular season — to totally forget about our school record and the big wins … and all of that. He encouraged us to act like it was the beginning of a new season.  

And I guess our team really took it to heart — because right after the meeting we came up with a new team slogan: New year, new season, new a** whupping.

We’ve been repeating it over and over this week leading up to the Sweet 16 — in the locker room, at practice, everywhere. (I warned you that we’re a little rowdy.)

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Coach gave us two days off before the first round of the NCAA tournament, so I went home to Forest to spend time with my family. After dinner, my brothers Daryl and Jonathan tried to convince me to do karaoke — they have one of those home karaoke machines. I told them that I’d do it if I could pick the song we were going to sing, and they agreed. Soon we were all singing along to New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain.” (A classic.) It was such a great moment — Daryl and Jonathan are terrible singers (you know I love you both), but they were trying their best. We were dancing and singing and laughing in the living room. It was the best.

I’ve been smiling about that night a few times since then. I’m so lucky to have a family that has my back.

Our first two games of the NCAA tournament were at home in Starkville, which was amazing because it meant that my brothers and my whole family got to be there.

But to be real? They’ll travel anywhere. The next destination is Oklahoma City — and they’re on their way now.

They’ll go anywhere we end up playing. All the way to Dallas for the Final Four, if need be.