LSU junior guard Jailin Cherry isn't the first college basketball player to accept a less prominent role after a successful high school career.
Cherry, a 5-feet-8 junior from Pascagoula (Mississippi) High School, always had the ball in her hands and became the first 1,000-point scorer in school history, averaging 16.3 points, nine rebounds and four steals per game as a senior.
But at LSU, with the Lady Tigers' big three of forwards Ayana Mitchell and Faustine and guard Khayla Pointer averaging a combined 38.5 points per game, Cherry has to make the most out of her limited opportunities. Last week she maximized her time with a team-high 12 points in a 57-54 upset victory at No, 10 Texas A&M.
LSU coach Nikki Fargas, is hoping it triggers more such performances from Cherry and the rest of the supporting cast with the Tigers off to a 12-3 start and a 3-1 record in the Southeastern Conference. That’s the best SEC start in three seasons going into Thursday’s visit to No. 12 Mississippi State.
“I just went to go play,” said Cherry, who averages 4.2 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. “Usually I go into a game thinking a lot. This game (vs. Texas A&M) I didn’t think, I just played without a conscious effort.
“The key is staying patient, trying to find my open shot and being where I need to be on defense. I believe I’m one of the top defenders on this team and my vertical is crazy, so rebounding is something I do.”
Cherry had six rebounds, three assists and two steals in a season-high 28:53 of playing time off the bench. Not only did she lead the team in scoring, but she also took a charge against A&M’s leading scorer N’dea Jones with 26 seconds left and LSU clinging to a one-point lead.
Cherry said she set up the charge by remembering the scouting report.
“I knew she wasn’t going to pull up for a jumper,” Cherry said of Jones. “I knew she would go for the layup, so I stepped in and braced myself.”
The seeds for Cherry’s effort were planted a few days earlier. After a galling defeat at 3-11 Missouri, Cherry went straight to the gym for a workout as soon as the team arrived back at the basketball operations facility. She had made one of five shots in the loss.
“She’s one of my hardest-working players,” Fargas said. “A phenomenal athlete, one of those players you don’t have to motivate to get into the gym.
“This is a kid who cares. Her hard work is going to pay off. She’s coachable, she’s buying into the team, but also someone we have tagged as a really good defense player who can guard and rebound.”
Fargas wasn’t the only one who noticed. Teammate Jaelyn Richard-Harris was impressed with how well Cherry played and came up with her on strong supporting role in Sunday’s 52-44 victory against Ole Miss. Richard-Harris hit 4 of 8 shots and had nine points on a day when LSU’s perimeter shooting was a bit chilly.
“I can’t be more proud of Cherry,” Richard-Harris said. “Having that extra effort to want to contribute, I thought it was a big deal.
“I honestly felt great coming into the (Ole Miss) game. We had good energy. We were ready to play.”
Cherry said she’s upped her mental game with help from former LSU players Seimone Augustus and Temeka Johnson.
“I would get into a lot of slumps,” she said. "I try to keep a positive mindset, and I’ve been working on my shot. In high school the ball was always in my hands. We have our big three, so I just do my role to get a team win.”