'Dores ready to rumble in Kentucky rematch

Pink may not be Vanderbilt point guard Jence Rhoads' favorite color, but she and her teammates will don the vibrant shade for a cause in this Sunday's 5 p.m. CST Pink Out and hopes to avenge an earlier loss to Kentucky. Vandy will be one of 25 teams featured in ESPN's "whiparound" coverage to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer.

VandyMania spoke with the junior playmaker who broke her left hand in the final minutes against the Wildcats on January 10, and is still wearing a splint to protect the mending bones.

The competitive 5-11 point guard from Slippery Rock, Pa., says it is her most serious injury since spraining an ankle her senior year in high school. It remains painful, but Jence, daughter of an Olympian who coaches basketball as well as her father, is pushing through it as calcium and time strengthens her guide hand.

"The hardest thing is dribbling because it's hard to grip the ball, but shooting is the same. Dribbling and passing took some time to get used to the tape but I seem to have adapted to it. It's working out fine."

No doubt. Following discovery of the break, Jence sat sidelined only two games, perhaps an even tougher assignment than finding open passing lanes against SEC opponents. She watched the 66-44 win against then No. 6 Georgia and the 57-64 loss to No. 5 Tennessee in Knoxville but made a quick comeback to assist her teammates in edging Auburn 61-60. Since the return, Jence has led scoring (20, 14 and 14) in 3 of the last 7 games and leads the team in assists (5.3), 3-point percentage (43%), field goal attempts (11.9) and field goals made (5.7).

That's a lot of leadership for an injured player who Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said is one of the toughest players in the game. Jence's lineage has much to do with her competitive spirit.

"It's just how my parents raised me to always do my best and who taught me you have to work through things to be successful," Jence said. "I'll just give it up to my parents on them raising me to be competitive. Loving the game is part of it. I don't want to sit out. I want to play as much as possible. Whatever I have to do to play is what I'm going to do."

Mother Melinda Hale-Rhoads played team handball in the 1984 Olympic Games, missing a medal by one goal. That experience qualified her to carry the Olympic torch in 1996 and she took the hand of 7-year-old Jence to run part of the half-mile distance. By that age, Jence had long been a gym rat before heading out to soccer fields where she excelled, too.

"My dad was coaching at university when I was born and my mom always went and played with him. When I was itty bitty, I would sit on the stairs and just watch them play pickup with the guys. I didn't go out and play like other little kids, I just sat and watched. From then on, I was always around basketball. My dad took me to all his games and my mom coached me when I was in junior high. My dad coached me in the ninth grade and in my AAU team."

Jence has another family member to remember this Sunday. Her grandma Helen had breast cancer before Jence entered college. "Playing for her is very important to me personally," Jence said, adding that she is fully recovered and fully engaged in watching her granddaughter on court. So Jence will wear pink for the cause – the team's pink gear includes jerseys, shoestrings, t-shirts and headbands. And they will set their sights on upending the hottest streaking team in the SEC which just beat No. 18 Georgia 64-48 on Thursday.

No. 16/17 Kentucky (21-3, 9-2) plays the No. 22 ‘Dores (17-7, 6-5) after Vandy's 60-69 home loss to the Lady Vols on Monday.

"We're really disappointed about it because we feel we should have won and we are the better team – and we were for the majority of that night the better team," Jence explains. "So we're really upset about how we ended it. Hopefully we can move forward and learn from it."

Lessons learned could spell trouble for the Wildcats, who pride themselves on defense. Their ball pressure and hustle took the Commodores out of the previous game with just three shots off in the final eight minutes.

"We kind of handed it to them. They outworked us and were tougher than us. So we need to bring a fight and get a little revenge on Sunday. The want to get us in a fast-paced game but we have to take control of the tempo. We have to be able to stop their major post player, Victoria Dunlap and keep their guards (Amber Smith) under control. We just have to play forty minutes of a game. We can't let up on anything," Jence said, referring to giving up 10 points twice (35-25 and 41-31) during the previous Kentucky game and in the final five minutes against Tennessee.

"We have to continue, even if they change up defensively and start applying more pressure, if they start denying or switching, we still have to execute our offenses like we know how to do. We can't let defenses take us out of what we're doing, even if they are scoring, even if we're not getting stops. We have to make a change within the game to try to get it back."

About that broken hand, Jence hasn't heard from Kentucky star Dunlap whose reach for the ball cracked the bones as Jence brought the ball up. She isn't sure she'll speak to Dunlap about it on Sunday. "Probably not; but hopefully, our playing will take care of that."

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