COLUMBIA — Kayla Rice rolled her eyes when reminiscing about how she ended up playing for the Columbia College women's basketball team this season.
“That was a big, long mess,” she said.
After transferring twice, the junior could be forgiven if the first month in Columbia didn’t seem much better than her past experiences. With Rice and freshmen Ashley Fisher and Heather English in the starting lineup, the Cougars lost three of their first four games, all by fewer than six points and two by a single possession.
This mess turned out to be neither big nor long, and the growing pains didn’t last. The trio, all from mid-Missouri high schools, has led the Cougars to victories in 13 of their past 15 games, including their first five American Midwest Conference games.
In Tuesday night’s 97-71 win over Hannibal-LaGrange, English scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Rice scored 15, and Fisher added 13.
“Those are the perfect young ladies to get into our program,” Cougars coach Mike Davis said. “Whenever you’re able to bring in those freshmen and the right transfers, that’s kind of our recipe for success.”
After Fisher scored nine of Columbia College’s first 11 points against McKendree last week, English came out against Hannibal-LaGrange and scored seven of the first nine. Fisher drained a 3-pointer with a defender’s hand in her face a minute later, and a steal by English led to yet another transition layup and a 17-8 lead.
By halftime, the Cougars led 45-26, and with the starters in to begin the second half, it began similarly. English opened with a 3-pointer and then found Rice streaking to the basket on a baseline in-bounds pass. Rice finished it with a nifty left-handed layup.
Despite leading the Cougars in scoring at 12 points per game and 3-pointers attempted at 101, Rice constantly hears Davis shouting for her to shoot more, especially beyond the arc. She heard him again on Tuesday and finally responded in the second half. She made one 3-pointer to extend Columbia College’s lead to 30 and connected on two straight with 13 minutes remaining.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like shooting the ball,” she said. “I think it’s a confidence thing. I’ll miss one, and I don’t have the confidence to shoot another.”
Davis recruited Rice out of high school after she led Westran to two state finals and made the Class 2 All-State team three times. She opted for Labette (Kan.) Community College but left after her first season, feeling her coaches never tried to make her feel comfortable and that they cared little for their players.
Davis recruited her again, but she transferred home to Moberly Area Community College to play in front of her family, including her ailing grandmother. Rice averaged 13 points and six rebounds and made the NJCAA all-region squad, but when her grandmother died and her grandfather assured her he could still make the trip down U.S. 63, Rice finally accepted Davis’ offer to come to Columbia College.
“We only had to recruit her three times,” he joked after the win over Hannibal-LaGrange. “And she’s transferring again this year.”
“Yeah,” English shot back with a straight face. “I’m going to (rival) William Woods.”
Davis said he thinks the Cougars can still improve upon their rebounding and won’t always be able to rely on making 50 percent of their 3-pointers, as they did Tuesday. After five straight double-digit wins, Columbia College will face tougher tests in two of its next three games against Missouri Baptist and William Woods, both also undefeated in the AMC.
Davis knows it won’t be the first time Rice or the other Cougars have faced adversity, though.
“Earlier in the year there were just a lot of challenges for this team,” Davis said. “When you’re 1-3, no one wrote beside it, ‘Yeah, but they’re young.’ The teams that want to make those excuses tend to stay 1-3 and then 2-6 and so on. They came in here and went to work at a lot of 6 a.m. practices and didn’t feel sorry for themselves.”