COLUMBIA — K-Kay Pickens came to Columbia in the fall of 2005 as a basketball star. At James Madison High School in Houston, she shot 78 percent from the field. She averaged 16 points, nine rebounds, four assists and over three steals per game.
Unfortunately for her, nearly everyone at the Division I level of college basketball was a high school phenom. And accordingly, Pickens has struggled to consistently find minutes on the court for the Tigers women’s basketball team.
“It’s been a real big adjustment,” Pickens said. “You come from high school where you were the star, and you get to college and everyone is good.”
Part of the problem can be attributed to her size. Pickens checks in at only 6-foot-1, and her body type can best be described as slender. As a result, she has trouble in the post against the likes of Oklahoma’s massive Paris twins and Colorado’s All-American Jackie McFarland.
“I’ve been on a weight program since I got here, and it’s not changing anything, as you can tell,” Pickens said, laughing. “I’ve given that up, so now I’m working on my mobility and agility so I can run around and tire them out. I’m working on that.”
Even though she has spent most of her basketball life working down low, Pickens does have next year to make a dent in the Tigers’ backcourt rotation. Head coach Cindy Stein thinks she has the talent to make it work, but it won’t come easy.
“She has to get stronger so she can play and absorb the post position,” Stein said. “It’s physical in there. K-Kay gives us good minutes, but it’s hard for her to sustain that because she’s so much smaller. She can give us good minutes, but it’s in spurts. If she wants to gain more playing time, it’d have to be on the perimeter, so she’ll have to improve her ball handling.
“She is an undersized post, so depending on matchups, it can help us when she uses her quickness to get around people. She’s given us good minutes defensively, and especially rebounding. I think she’s hit the boards real well for us, and she’s court smart.”
When a player can’t seem to find a niche on the court, especially an upperclassman like Pickens, it can work two ways. She can stew and complain, or she can work hard enough in practice to improve the team and make a lasting impression on the coaching staff. It’s the fight Pickens faces every day, and though it hasn’t translated to extended playing time quite yet, it doesn’t go unnoticed.
“She’s constantly talking to the girls and helping them out,” Stein said. “She helps us in a lot more ways than just minutes.”
As good as that sounds, Pickens isn’t satisfied.
“I think... I work hard, I guess it’s not paying off,” she said, searching to find the right words. “It’s hard, but as a teammate, if we’re winning, I don’t mind because there’s obviously someone getting the job done better than you. But the season we’re having, I just don’t know. It’s tough.”
Her former roommate Alyssa Hollins, Missouri’s leading scorer and de facto leader, wants her friend to stay positive, but she knows it’s difficult when the breaks never go the right way.
“She’s strong mentally. I couldn’t do it,” Hollins said. “If i wasn’t playing a lot, or not getting the time I thought I deserved, I don’t think I could handle it, but she keeps coming out every day and working hard. She keeps me going when I’m sick of this, when I’m tired, when I need a break, and she’ll try to keep me motivated. She’s stronger than she thinks she is.”
Her biggest contribution to the game likely comes the five days per week the team doesn’t play a game. After spending two years learning behind All-Conference posts such as Christelle N’Garsanet and EeTisha Riddle, Pickens has been thrust into a teaching role for the group of freshmen and sophomores that have monopolized much of the playing time.
“We talk a lot about how juniors and seniors are always looked upon as leaders, so obviously they have the experience you need on how you get things done,” Stein said. “It’s the know-how, trying to pass that on to the younger kids in a real positive way. It’s one thing to be a leader, but you need to lead in a good way. You rely on the older kids, and K-Kay being one of them, leads in a positive direction. She keeps the team working hard, and shows it by example.”
Pickens doesn’t mind, because in her opinion, she’s getting a head start on her future profession.
“It’s actually a comfortable spot for me. I plan on coaching; I’d rather coach than play. If my coaching is paying off, then it’s all good,” she said.
But she’s still a player first, and her hard work paid off in a big way in the Tigers’ recent win over archrival Kansas. She came off the bench to play a career-high 16 minutes and grabbed a career-high seven rebounds, which led the team. That it came in a 62-59 victory to end a 10-game losing streak was all the sweeter.
“It feels wonderful,” Pickens said, smiling at the memory. “I like playing, don’t get me wrong. I helped us get a win. Everytime I go in, I do what I do, which is basically defense and rebound, so when they need me, I’m there. I go all out, no holding back. It feels wonderful to say I worked that hard and we got a win.”
Hollins, who may have stolen some of Pickens’ thunder with a 27-point performance that day, gushed like a mother about that game.
“I was so proud of her,” she said. “She’s made such strides since freshman year. She used to kick the ball everywhere, but she’s come so far. She can leap with the best of them. She’s not as big as some of those girls, but her athleticism helps her out. I was just extremely proud.”
But as great as that win was, the rest of the season has been just as miserable. The Tigers go into tonight’s regular season finale at Colorado at 9-19 and just 2-13 in Big 12 play. With Hollins and Pickens as the team’s only juniors and just one senior, the future looks bright. Keeping that outlook has been vital to surviving a type of season none of these girls have dealt with before.
“Nobody has been on a team that has lost this much, so we’re taking it pretty hard,” Pickens said. “I think the main fact is that we’re young and inexperienced, but next year, that will all change.
“I believe we’ll be a totally different team. Now it’s just a whole bunch of frustration because we’re working so hard and we’re losing. Next year, we’ll be able to get those wins. Everyone needs to stay positive.”