The Elon University women’s basketball team had built an early lead in the first quarter of its game Friday, Feb. 12.
And then junior forward Jenifer Rhodes went for a dunk.
“I was shocked she even tried it,” said head coach Charlotte Smith. “I didn’t even think she had the guts to do it.”
“I’m sitting on the bench, and I don’t know that she’s been practicing it,” said assistant coach Cristy McKinney. “I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’”
Rhodes’ attempted dunk with 2:35 left in the first quarter against Towson University slipped out of her hand just before she could finish it and left everyone in Alumni Gym buzzing.
The dunk is going to become a part of Rhodes’ game, a natural part of the progression of her abilities. But to McKinney, who works primarily with the post players during practices, the areas in which Rhodes has grown the most is her mindset and her mentality about basketball.
“Jen was really hard on herself when she got here,” McKinney said. “When she made a mistake, you could see her droop, or she’d miss a shot and couldn’t get past it. She has really grown up in that respect.”
Rhodes has stepped into a leadership role during the season, actively working to help her teammates when she can. At games, Rhodes is unmistakably vocal while playing defense, especially with the other forwards.
“She told me earlier in the year, ‘I’m going to be the post leader.’” McKinney said. “I said, ‘That’s great. We need a post leader. You be it.’ And she really has. I think next year, as a senior, she’s really going to be that leader that we need.”
Rhodes has taken on that task despite bouncing back and forth between the bench and the starting lineup. She started for the first time in Elon’s sixth game of the season, then started Elon’s next 10 games.
But she went to the bench again Jan. 22 as freshman forward Nikki McDonald started, and stayed there until this past Sunday, Feb. 14, when McDonald didn’t play because of illness. Rhodes led Elon with 14 points and hasn’t minded coming off the bench.
“Sometimes, when I’m told I’m starting, I kind of get butterflies,” Rhodes said. “I feel like a child, and get super, super nervous. Being able to sit on the bench and watch how the game is going calms my nerves, and it’s easing on my mind.”
Smith said the decision to put Rhodes on the bench was made to be able to use her against the other team’s center, displaying a different skill set to the opposition after sophomore forward Malaya Johnson starts.
“She feels like she’d rather have me and Malaya play at different times, so she can utilize us at the 5 position,” Rhodes said. “I think it was a smart decision by her, and I’ve never been a stifler about wanting to start — as long as I feel like I’m being productive. She’s the head coach, that’s her decision. I just want to play my role and my part on the team.”
Johnson is more of a traditional post player that stays around the key and can be physical. While Rhodes is a physical player, she also is fast for a post player, and Smith wants to use her speed like she did on the fastbreak near-dunk.
“Coach McKinney always tell me after halftime, ‘This is your time to get a fastbreak or a putback,’” Rhodes said. “That’s my game. I try to focus on sprinting out because I think that’s an advantage I have. On the roster, it says I’m 6 feet, but I’m really only 5 [foot], 11 and a half [inches], so I have to bring a part of my game somewhere else. I think my quickness and speed help me get out past other post players.”
For only being 5 foot, 11 and a half inches, Rhodes has an impressive vertical jump and is not far from finishing a dunk in a game. Yet, before Feb. 12, no one around the team had seen that from Rhodes before, creating a sense of amazement in the attempt.
Well, everyone except for one teammate.
“I don’t do it in practice, but afterwards, me and [senior guard] Josepha Mbouma, we kind of see what I can do,” Rhodes said. “This past week, I was finishing a couple of them, and she said, ‘Jen, just do it.’ So when I got that fast break, I thought, ‘You know what, I’m doing it.’ I’m sad I missed it, but I have confidence.”
Mbouma has been working out with Rhodes for a while, but practicing the dunks happened by chance.
“It started with us just playing around, because Jen is super athletic, and I said, ‘C’mon Jen, you got it.’” Mbouma said. “It’s nothing we try to do too seriously, but I asked her, ‘When you get those breakaway fast breaks, do you feel like you can dunk?’ She said, ‘Yeah, so many times.’ So I said, ‘Why not practice it? Why not work on completing it?’
“So we’ve talked about it and practiced. When she went up in the game, I was so shocked, but Jen is so capable. She’s definitely going to complete one.”
One teammate, junior guard Essence Baucom, said she thought Rhodes’ new hairdo played a part. Rhodes put a long braid in her hair earlier in the season, but took it out ahead of the Feb. 12 game. The braid was so heavy, Rhodes needed to use a shoelace to keep it in place during games, as a regular hair tie could not hold it. Now, Baucom said Rhodes is “floating” when she leaps.
“I’m not gonna lie, when I got them out, I felt a little lighter," Rhodes said. "I didn’t have to really strain my neck to hold it upright. I don’t know per se if I was lighter jumping — maybe, because it’s a lot of weight. But I don’t know if it apprehended my jumping ability.”
Mbouma said Rhodes can dunk a volleyball easily, and she’s seen Rhodes throw down a basketball on a few occasions — especially without her braid. But it’s the grip that Rhodes struggles with. Those struggles have gone unnoticed to the coaching staff, though.
“I haven’t seen Jen try to dunk,” McKinney said. “She said she’d been in the gym on her own working on dunking. I think it’s a possibility for her, but she does have to work on it.”
And if Rhodes wants some advice from a woman who has dunked, she doesn’t need to go very far to find it.
“She needs to tell Coach Smith to get in the gym with her and work on that,” McKinney said. “That’d be the perfect person to help her.”
For her part, Smith hasn’t offered to help Rhodes dunk, mainly because she hasn’t seen her practicing it.
“She doesn’t practice it enough,” Smith said. “When I was dunking, I would practice it every day. You have to practice it.”
Yet late after practice, there are Rhodes and Mbouma, working hard on their games, trying to make each other better, day in and day out.
And Rhodes may be throw down a dunk on two. If you believe everyone around the program, she’ll dunk in a game before we know it.