Rhoads cherishes game that gave her much

Defining moments are the chisels in life that shape who you become. When Vanderbilt guard Jence Rhoads graduates May 13, that blip on the timeline of her life will be huge – "education at Vanderbilt is no joke." So also was the moment when she broke her hand in January 2010, a life altering instance in which she learned to cherish the days she can play the game that has given her so much.

That deep desire to hustle on the hardwoods, a well chronicled competitive spirit descending from an Olympian mom and a collegiate coach dad, carried her through more physical pain these past 14 months than she has suffered in her lifetime.

"When I broke my hand at Kentucky, it was an eye-opening experience," the senior from Slippery Rock, Pa., said. "It was the first time I had experienced that in my career. That was kind of like ‘oh, so I need to play all the time and cherish my time and opportunity to play because you don't know when it could be taken away from you.'"

Two games is all Jence sat out – it was tough on the sidelines, watching her teammates, even though they dropped No. 6 Georgia 66-44 and lost by seven to Tennessee in her absence.

"Whatever I have to do to play is what I'm going to do." Fingers splinted, grip realigned, determination set, she played through the pain the rest of the season, and went on to be selected to the All SEC-First Team, as she was again this year, as she did her first year, an All SEC Freshman.

This summer a trip in a pickup game broke her wrist. The schedule card and poster, the television commercial and other fall media promotions featuring the senior – all shot while Jence's wrist was bandaged. A sprained hamstring pulled her from the lineup in this season's first two games, and she missed the ‘Dores' February rematch with Kentucky with a sprained right ankle. "You just don't know when something could happen. You have to make the most of the time you do have," she said.

In 28 of 31 games, she played with the tenacity stoked by a furnace of will. With three years behind her, she became a vocal leader and scorer as well.

The SEC Tournament, a highlight any season but particularly this one in Vanderbilt's hometown, was another test of will. Unknown to any except those with the team, their point guard ran the court for two games with a 102-degree temperature. "I wasn't going to sit out. It was my last SEC Tournament. You don't want to be on the sidelines for that."

Jence the fighter continues: "There were a lot of unfortunate things that happened to me this year. It was hard to deal with all those things, but I had to, I had no choice. I wanted to still be there for my team even when I was injured."

While Jence describes her four years as "awesome," this season, when Vanderbilt was unranked for all but the first three games, lost in the SEC semifinals and booted in the NCAA First Round, was rightly deemed "rocky. "It was a learning experience for all of us," Jence said, seeking the right adjectives to portray the hard work that missed the mark at times. "It's kind of hard to put into words. It was a good season – it didn't end how we wanted it to, but overall it was still a good season. We were third in the SEC, and we had a 20-win season. Any school would be happy with the season we had, it was just how it ended was disappointing."

Ever the leader, Jence called Vanderbilt's future team to task after the 19-point loss to Louisville in the first round. It was the largest margin of defeat the whole season and a watershed moment for the senior and several in the Cintas Center locker room. "A fire in their eyes" is what Jence wants to light up next year.

As hard as the loss was personally, her outlook is for the team. While the 5-11 point guard was encouraged to become more of a shooter last season, her role changed again to a 2-guard and sometime post depending on zone coverage.

"My role has gone from being just a follower to a captain so I've done a bunch of things. Yes, I was forced to step outside my comfort zone both in playing and in leadership. I'll be a better person for it in the end, but it was a hard process. Hopefully someone else will recognize that versatility and I'll get to play somewhere else now."

Although she will graduate with an Interdisciplinary arts and sciences degree that would ease entry int a graduate school, her desire post Vanderbilt is basketball.

"I would like to keep playing, definitely that's the plan, whether that's here or somewhere else. I've talked to a couple of agents, but need to start that process of finding one and getting to know them." A location anywhere would be great, she said, but English speaking is a plus.

While her days on campus are numbered, she will take great memories of the campus and court with her. She is grateful for the chance to play at Vanderbilt, the only SEC school and only Top 25 program to recruit her. "I wanted to see how I could do at this level. I wanted to challenge myself. I had all the confidence that I could do it – I just wanted to show everyone else that I could. I wanted to be in the NCAA tournament, I wanted to make Sweet 16s, I didn't want to be just fighting to get into the tournament."

Jence will leave as the seventh player in school history to earn All American Honorable Mention honors from the Women's Basketball Association Region 3. She led Vandy in scoring (11.9 ppg), assists (4.78) and average minutes (35.4) in her final year.

"It's been an amazing experience from the time I stepped on campus until now. The things you learn, the things you get to do. The people that you meet, there is no other chance in your life to get to do these things. It takes a while to realize that when something doesn't go your way. I'll never forget the experiences I've had. It's been an awesome four years."

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