Unique Journey Reaches Milestone for Five Seniors
The group of seniors on this season’s Kentucky women’s basketball team came together in unusual fashion.
Ogechi Anygaligbo, Nae Nae Cole, Sabrina Haines, Amanda Paschal and Jaida Roper didn’t all arrive on campus together as freshmen. In fact, if you go back to when Roper and Anyagaligbo – the only members of the group to spend four years at UK – enrolled, the quintet was scattered all about the United States.
Roper was a true freshman in Lexington back in 2016, while Anyagaligbo was spending a redshirt year at UK after transferring from Stony Brook. Nae Nae Cole was set to begin her sophomore year at North Carolina State, Sabrina Haines was preparing for a big sophomore season at Arizona State and Amanda Paschal was about to miss the entire season at Gulf Coast State College with an injury after winning an NJCAA national title the previous year.
“Form that standpoint, that makes them so special,” Matthew Mitchell said. “It was a class that did come about in an unexpected way and I have often thought about how different my life would be for the worse if it didn’t happen the way that it did.”
On Thursday night, Mitchell and No. 15 Kentucky (20-6, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) will honor the five at Senior Night before the Wildcats host Georgia (15-12, 6-8 SEC) at 7 p.m.
“They are just an awesome group of young women,” Mitchell said. “They deserve all the support and love that we can muster up for them tomorrow night and I hope everybody will be in their seats early.”
These seniors came to Kentucky during more uncertain times coming off a rash of departures from the program. That added up to 2017-18 season during which the Cats fell short of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years, but this class has helped steady the ship. UK is now poised to return to the Big Dance for the second straight year and the future looks bright.
“It’s an immense contribution they have made to the program and as much as they have contributed on the court, they are fantastic people off the court,” Mitchell said. “They are great teammates and none of us in the program are perfect and we have all had things we have tried to overcome on and off the court but this group have come through it with a tremendous amount of grace and I really look up to this group of seniors.”
As different as the paths have been, the five seniors have all treaded common ground in overcoming adversity. Anyagaligbo, Paschal and Haines have all missed full seasons due to injury, while bumps and bruises have been regular occurrences for Roper and Cole.
“There is not a person in this room or at this table that doesn’t have a story,” said Roper, who is averaging 7.9 points and has a team-high 90 assists. “But, it’s what you make of it and how you let it affect you, how you let it motivate you. You’re going to get knocked down plenty of times, but you just have to get back up every time, stronger, ready to work the next day.”
“We represent what college basketball is, especially nowadays,” said Haines, who has started every game for UK this season in averaging 10.1 points. “The fact that we have all pushed through our own things, you know what I’m saying? When you play college basketball, you go through a lot: physically, mentally, emotionally, everything like that. We all came from different situations, but somehow ended up together.”
They ended up together and became stronger for it.
“Just seeing everyone else battle their battle and just walking their adverse patterns and how strong each and every one of us are,” said Anyagaligbo, who has provided an important post presence in her 14.3 minutes per game, “it has helped me appreciate basketball and how in the long run, it has groomed me for life after it.”
The other thing all five seniors have in common is they appear well positioned for life after college. Four of them have graduated already, with Roper to follow in May.
“That is unusual and another great thing to highlight about this senior class is what great students they are,” Mitchell said. “To a person, everyone achieving at a high level academically. As you said, four of the five have already graduated and another one graduates in May. We are just always pleased when that happens for our players and they graduate with a degree. They have worked hard to accomplish a lot while they have been here.”
That’s certainly true on the court, where the Cats have plenty to play for. With two games left in the regular season, UK is contention for an SEC Tournament double-bye and a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“They are really, really motivated to have a special run down the stretch,” Mitchell said. “They have a lot to play for. This is a huge game tomorrow night and the sense I get from them is they are really locked in tomorrow night. They are happy to be honored as seniors, but the sense I get is they are locked in to get this win.”
And if the stakes didn’t provide motivation enough, there’s the fact that these seniors are running short on opportunities to play together. For them, that’s no small thing.
“I’m just happy I get to play with this group of individuals right here,” said Paschal, who is averaging 5.7 points and 26.3 minutes per game. “They are all different. They all bring different things to the table, and I’m just happy I get to build a relationship and be sisters with them forever.”