You can almost hear what Texas Aggie Women’s Basketball Coach Gary Blair is going to say on his next live radio show at Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ on Harvey Road: “I told y’all that Chelsea Jennings was special. Now you believe me.” At the postgame interview of Thursday’s contest in Aggieland, Blair, generally “the Gary Cooper of compliments” (i.e., monosyllabic) spoke warmly of the senior guard, who the Texas Aggie Head Coach calls “our Alex Caruso.”
As one of five starters in the Jan. 13 game, Jennings showed the audience, the coaches and anyone in the same zip code the kind of play that Coach Blair covets of every one of players each and every game. With a career-high 29 points, Jennings showed brilliant decisions and skill against the Lady Bulldogs of Ole Miss, walking out of Reed Arena with a decided victory, 81-58, in front of a “pretty good” crowd of 4,033.
Said Blair of Jennings’ game, “No, we just let it come to her. We put her in spots where against their half-court trap, she’s in the middle making good decisions and when we break it we know where she is in the corner. Other than that they played us in a lot more zone than second half. She’s just got a good mid-range game, almost as good as Walker…This team is not about individual stats, we’ve got to get ready, and we’ve got to get our bench ready because that bench is going to be playing for me next year.”
For Jennings, her array of numbers is impressive on the surface: playing 32 minutes, she was 12-15 of her field goals, 5 of 6 on her free throws, picked up 4 rebounds, with 1 assist, 3 turnovers, and 1 steal. But the numbers are a ridiculous obfuscation of the secret ingredient that was in Chelsea’s play—heart. Plain and simple, heart. This young woman, until today, has been the most unsung hero on the Texas Aggie women’s roster.
Prior to last season’s start, Blair was doing his summer recap speech to make the faithful followers aware of how the juniors in the Aggie’s most heralded recruiting class ever were doing. Blair cited two players particularly, Courtney Walker and Chelsea Jennings, for being the ones to be in the gym practicing, all day and all night. Gary joked that sometimes he thought they lived there. Walker and Jennings are like-minded in other ways, as the engineering major and architect are used to burning the midnight oil and budgeting their practice time around their classes. That’s a team thing as well: balance; Gary Blair also covets his players’ graduation rates and he and his staff, particularly Coach Kelly Bond, are all about the classroom time for their players.
The Aggie women struggled last season, and it’s not exactly certain why. Despite the team having essentially “grown up together,” Blair often found his talented transfer student Achiri Ade as his go-to player in the game, because she ignored all the fails and the misses of prior shots and kept on doing her job rebounding until the shots started to fall. All season long, fans sat in awe and wonder some games when the Aggies shot lights out, particularly carried on the backs of the two CWs (Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker) and Jordan Jones’ basketball savvy and excellence as a point guard.
But there were more games than not, despite the inked “+” sign on his hand, that Blair’s suit coat jacket came off before intermission, and it was chunked, tossed, or almost drop-kicked across the chair in disgust. Wise owl that he is, he could see exactly what to do against various opponents, but the team was too focused on the “last mistake” to succeed at the next shot.
The visualization of possible failure became the self-fulfilling prophecy in many games. You could see the Marine in Blair shooting his way out of a trap, as he’d look to Jennings on the bench and give her the go-ahead to get in there and make something happen. Game for game, that’s exactly what Chelsea did.
“Jennings,” his chosen moniker for her, went in and stole balls, ran balls up the court, took shots, found open shooters and basically would hit three shots in a row and give the Aggie women their momentum back. With the enthusiastic shot in the arm of Jennings’ play, the team somehow found their inner compass and righted their game back on to get the go-ahead and win. Even when the team couldn’t buy a basket or sink the “gimme” shots, Jennings was all about the baskets, the game and her team.
And it didn’t matter to Chelsea if she played three minutes or sat the bench the entire time. You can easily recall, if you heard her speak, say modestly, “I am prepared to go in if Coach needs me. I’m ready if he needs me.” Do you just not want to capture that light and energy for all to see? It’s inner discipline, it’s being an Aggie, and playing with heart and mind that makes Jennings the secret weapon she is to this Aggie women’s basketball team.
That unselfish heart of a leader is something that has caused Blair to call Chelsea “our Alex Caruso” as the ultimate compliment in comparing her heart and spirit to that of the most dedicated player, now four years running, on the Aggie men’s basketball team, currently enjoying a heyday of their own this season. When Caruso dives to the floor three times a game, chasing after every single ball that comes his way, and stealing others that do not, the home crowd always goes nuts. And so it was with Jennings when she plays.
But, the only statement that Chelsea had to offer the media was classic “Jennings”: “I just want to thank my teammates because they found me when I was open and I knew a lot of the attention would be on Courtney Walker. With that being said, that left me with open looks and I was lucky enough to knock them down.” Blair has said it regularly, the past two seasons so far, “I put her in the game when I need her energy. She comes off the bench, she makes things happen.”
Walker and Jennings kept the Bulldogs in check. Another bright spot came in the play of Rachel Mitchell, who was 3-3 on her shots, grabbed 5 rebounds, and although she had 3 turnovers, she added 4 blocks and 1 steal to her collective contributions tonight. With her play against the Bulldogs tonight, Rachel is now seventh on A&M’s career blocks list, with 93.
She’s moved passed Lisa Jordan’s 90 and La Toya Micheaux’s 91, and it’s only January. She could easily advance quickly into the Aggies’ all-time block leader. Likely she will. Blair offered “Rachel played pretty well in there, she was pretty active.” Gary Cooper has spoken. Jordan Jones had her season-high 9 assists; she just has that special skill in knowing where everyone is, or is supposed to be, and makes the shots happen. When she’s 100% again, watch out.
Even the opposition had compliments for Chelsea Jennings tonight. Matt Insell, the Ole Miss Head Coach said, “It’s a product of who we are as a basketball team, Texas A&M, true credit to them. What Gary [Blair] has done with his program over the years he’s been here, has been really good in terms of building a program. You have a kid like Courtney Williams that’s out today, but you have another kid like Chelsea Jennings that steps in.” The operative phrase being “building a program.” That’s why the sign on Gary Blair’s desk says “Building champions.”
All day and all night, game-by-game, Blair is getting his seniors lined out and shaped up for the goal of surviving NCAA tournament play to get as high as they can go. Jordan Jones is determined she’s going to take her team there. Courtney Williams may be nursing a back strain right now but she is rooting for her team loud and proud from that bench. She’ll return and shoot lights out again soon. This year’s team has gelled into a core unit, as is becoming clearer with each game.
The Holiday Hoops bargain ticket prices are gone but in 2016, your best investment would be tickets in the remaining home games for the Aggie women’s basketball team because you’re not going to want to miss a game. Next up for the Aggie women is the biggest test of the season as they travel to South Carolina to face the nation’s No. 2 team in a game set to begin at 12:30 p.m. CST on ESPN2.
Next Thursday, Jan. 21, they return to Reed Arena to take on the Mizzou Tigers at 7 p.m. This team deserves consistent community, faculty, and student support. Parking is free; there are no good excuses if you bleed maroon. Just get to Reed and then go catch the next Gary Blair radio show so you can hear him say, “I told y’all Chelsea Jennings was special. Now you believe me.”