Senior (less) Day Salute—By John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — As a lifelong University of Kentucky sports fan, some of my most lasting basketball memories have been of Senior Day. The emotions and pageantry of four-year lettermen together with their loving and supportive families–parading one final time before an adoring BBN–never fails to bring tears to my steadfast eyes. Throw in a stanza or two of My Old Kentucky Home, and I’ll be a blubbering basket case before the night is over.
Unfortunately, in this era of One-and-Done basketball players, meaningful Senior Days are few and far between. After all, you can’t have Senior Day without any seniors. That’s exactly what’s happening with this year’s Kentucky men’s basketball team—there are no seniors, so I’m getting my fix elsewhere. Fortunately, the Kentucky women’s team came to the rescue, with Alyssa Rice and Jessica Hardin providing the necessary fodder for another emotional ritual.
Coach Matthew Mitchell kicked off the festivities with a fitting tribute to both graduating seniors. “Jessica Hardin is really special to us,” he gushed at the pre-game press conference. “If it had not been for some really unusual circumstances, our paths would not have crossed, and I sure am happy that our paths did end up crossing because she has been an outstanding person that we will now count as an alum to the program. Her contribution has been outstanding in so many ways.”
“Alyssa just came to us as a real high character young woman,” Coach Mitchell continued. “She has always cared about other people and has always shown great work ethic. In the classroom, she’s been amazing. She’s been a leader for us in the community and given back to others. Her game has really improved from the day she walked in the door to the day she’ll walk out. She has applied herself in every area. She’s someone we’re real proud of. She’ll be a product of the program that we will share with others and this is what you can accomplish and this is what you can do.”
That’s high praise, indeed, from a coach who’s been through eleven different Senior Days in his tenure with the Wildcats. That’s eleven years of mentoring student athletes—many of them four-year graduates—who have matured through the program without transferring, defecting, or melting down. That means as fans, we’ve gotten to know every one of these Senior Day recipients as not only skilled players, but real live people, quirks and all. It’s a bit different from the men, where after four short months, it’s a quick sayonara on their way to glorious NBA careers. I’m not saying it’s better on the women’s side…well maybe I am. At least for fans of the team, there’s a heck of a lot more investment involved.
Prior to the game, Jessica and Alyssa stood pensively at mid-court one final time as the Memorial Coliseum home crowd gave them a well-deserved ovation. Joined by family, they were then presented framed jerseys by Coach Mitchell and staff. As predicted, a stirring rendition of My Old Kentucky Home opened the floodgates to Niagara Falls for the 6,014 or so in attendance.
As for the ballgame itself, it wasn’t nearly the storybook ending everyone was hoping for as Mississippi State (30-0, 16-0 SEC) pounded the Wildcats (14-16, 6-10 SEC) 85-63 in the season finale. Alyssa finished with two points and three rebounds while Jessica also scored two points in her four minutes on the floor.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through their minds. Seasons of hard work, fond memories, and lasting friendships culminating in a crescendo of tears, cheers, and years of the ultimate college experience. Unlike their male counterparts, there is no multi-million-dollar NBA contract waiting in the wings. But there is something, perhaps, with intangible residual value.
“What we are trying to do and what we are intentional about—it is very important—is we are trying to develop an experience for them that has some depth to it and value that they can draw upon after they leave here,” Coach Mitchell explained. “These two players, I am just telling you, these two have a really, really bright future ahead.”
For Jessica, that future is one of limitless possibilities. “I’m looking for jobs,” she said with her customary smile. “I am on the job search. I could possibly do grad school or end up with a career after this. I am in the pursuit of a job.” Any takers out there in the Big Blue network?
As for Alyssa, the self-proclaimed perfectionist plans to attend graduate school and obtain a master’s degree in sports administration or sports leadership. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her as a future athletics director at a major university. Neither should you.
Coach Mitchell ended his press conference with this. “I can’t think of many finer people that I’ve encountered on my coaching journey than Alyssa Rice.” For the ultimate modern-day student-athlete experience, I couldn’t agree more. I love Senior Day and the adventure it represents.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.