A tip and a steal and Tennessee’s Ariel Massengale was locked like a heat-seeking missile on an easy fast-break basket.
As she slowed to gather herself in the lane, though, LSU’s Jeanne Kenney came flying in from behind, on a wobbly left knee, no less, cutting Massengale off to draw a bone-crunching charge.
As Kenney pulled herself off the court, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick doubled over, clutching the front of her pants legs in frustration.
Warlick and her staff should have known what to expect from Kenney by now, and they probably did. But perhaps it defies logic, or expectation, to predict the way Kenney plays, the way she hurls her body around the court like some female version of Rocky Balboa.
There she was, in the first half against Tennessee, just three days removed from a frightening hyperextension of her left knee against Texas A&M, making her own steal and slamming into the scorers’ table, a two-car pileup that also collected a referee and sent him away flexing his arm in pain.
It was a play that many players wouldn’t have attempted healthy. It’s the kind of effort Kenney gives every night, sacrificing her well-being for her team.
“There’s no fear about her,” team trainer Micki Collins said. “Tough as nails. But she scares the dickens out of me, especially now that I’m not on the bench.”
Collins was watching from the LSU locker room with her newborn son during the A&M game Feb. 4 when she looked up to see the Aggies player roll into the unsuspecting Kenney’s left knee. Collins handed her child to her sister and ran out onto the court.
Kenney, whose scars on her knees and elbows are like a road map of her career, was for once scared as well. She heard something in her left knee pop, and having a physician for a father she knew that could be bad.
“I got nervous,” Kenney said. “I can take a hit, but knees make me nervous.”
Moments after, though, Kenney was running in a back hallway of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Collins decided it was best she not return.
“I went down there because I didn’t know how bad it was,” Dr. Robert Kenney said. “She was just fuming.”
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell pronounced Kenney out of the starting lineup against Tennessee, but it took all of three minutes to get her into the game.
Kenney played 30 minutes, hyperextended knee and all — all but willing the Lady Tigers to victory against No. 12-ranked Tennessee in a bitter 64-62 loss.
Despite the defeat, Kenney was an inspiration to her team.
“You would never know that the kid is banged up, bruised up and taped up by her competitive spirit,” Caldwell said. “That’s what she brings to our team: toughness. It has a lot to do with who Jeanne Kenney is. She’s that type of player who makes sacrifices, whether it’s her body or a shot to give her teammates a look.”
Collins has been the Lady Tigers team trainer for a dozen seasons. She said the only player who she puts in Kenney’s category in terms of physical toughness is former center DeTrina White.
Like the 5-foot-8 Kenney, the 5-11 White was undersized compared to many of the physical skyscrapers who play in the Southeastern Conference. But like White, Kenney’s determination is unmatched.
Kenney’s toughest hit? It’s a bit hazy, but it would have to be the elbow she took from Tennessee’s Glory Johnson in the first minute of a game last season in Knoxville.
The blow gave Kenney a concussion and caused her to miss two games.
“That one hurt,” Kenney said. “I had a nice, colorful little eye there.”
The hit may have hurt, but it didn’t change Kenney’s selfless style of play. The only thing that could do that was an admonishment from her 89-year-old grandfather.
“After I took a couple of charges in a game he literally kicked me in the butt,” Kenney said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You’re going to break a hip. I promise I’ll be more careful.’ ”
The 20-year-old Kenney started playing basketball at 4 and honed her toughness in countless pickup games on the driveway with her older and taller brother, Mark.
“He never played past the eighth grade,” said Jeanne’s mother, Kay Kenney, “but when she was little bitty they would go at it.”
“He helped me a lot,” Jeanne said. “He would always beat me, but that competitive spirit was instilled in me.”
When she got a bit older, Kenney played shortstop on a boys baseball team.
“I loved it,” she said. “I loved proving the kids wrong who would pick me last for things. They just saw a girl, and a really skinny one at that.
“And I would beat them at everything. That’s my favorite thing to do: proving somebody wrong.”
Kenney downplays her natural athletic ability, but when she signed with LSU in 2010 she was rated the nation’s No. 31 prospect by ESPN. She credits teammates like KK Babin (now a player at Nicholls State) at St. Michael the Archangel and current LSU teammate Theresa Plaisance (the two played AAU ball together) for making Kenney appealing to coaches who came to scout them.
When her playing days are over, Kenney wants to be a coach.
“Being a former player when I’m coaching you’ll really start to think, ‘OK, this sprint might kill them,’ ” Kenney said. “ ’I’m pretty sure we’ll need a day off after this day.’ ”
It’s pretty much a given Kenney won’t be as tough as a coach as she is on herself.