Mississippi State’s 2021-22 women’s basketball campaign was marred by a number of setbacks.
Nikki McCray-Penson’s resignation as head coach because of health reasons led to a number of players leaving via the transfer portal before the season. With a limited roster, it still looked as if they would at least be able to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
Then, leading scorer Rickea Jackson entered the transfer portal, a move that wasn’t necessarily surprising, but it came at a bad time as the team continued its conference schedule. They even responded in a big way with a home win over Texas A&M, but that came with a price: Freshman Denae Carter went down with a torn ACL late in the game.
Carter had become a vital player in the wake of transfers and injuries, giving the team a much-needed presence in the post and the ability to compete with the biggest and best in the SEC. The Bulldogs were 13-7, 4-4 in the SEC, when she went down. They finished 15-14, 6-10.
“We went from a lot to a little, but I think we worked really hard last season,” Carter said, reflecting on the difficult campaign.
Five months into her recovery she is in good spirits, and like her teammates she is thrilled to be working towards next season with a reloaded roster and a new, complete coaching staff.
It wasn’t always like this, however, and she recalled the difficult process of accepting the injury and looking at the road ahead to getting back out on the court.
“It was really frustrating,” Carter said. “It kinda took a toll on me afterwards, but I think everything happens for a reason, and I’m really excited to see what this is gonna bring for my game as we progress.
“I think it’s just about the work at the place I’m in right now and how much I put in is how much I get out of it.”
The team went on as Carter went through surgery and rehab, taking it step by step with workouts before she could take the court again. She hasn’t been alone in that process.
“I never realized how many people I knew that have actually gone through the same injury,” Carter said. “My older sister, she tore her right ACL and her left ACL, so she was a big step in this recovery. She stayed with me for at least a month and a half after surgery, and she’s always been there for me to lean on.
“She’s given me a lot of advice about the good days, the bad days of just the process, and how to overcome the struggles that it comes with. She’s been a really big support system for me.”
Carter expects to resume full workouts in late August. In the meantime she’s been able to hit the weight room and do some limited workouts. With new head coach Sam Purcell and a number of new teammates, Carter has her sights set once again on developing her game and being a key contributor for the Bulldogs.
Though she played mostly at the 5 last season, Carter sees herself more as a 4 in the post and expects to play more in partnership with other bigs now that she has multiple teammates over 6 feet tall. Still, she was quick to give credit to the staff and team last year for helping her become a better player at this level on the fly.
“I definitely think it came as the days went by,” Carter said. “It was very hard in the beginning, but I had to realize there was a lot more to the game, how important a rebound is, how important a blocked shot is. It’s not always about scoring, and I think being that piece for the team has really helped me get my mind right and perform well.”
Growth through trial by fire was one of the positives from a difficult season for the team in general, and Carter’s development in particular. She was averaging about 8 rebounds per game and had 40 blocks before her injury, enough to earn her a spot on the 2022 SEC All-Freshman team. She adjusted quickly to a very physical league, and the mental and physical toughness that has gotten her where she is today was crucial to focusing on her role.
“I think that for me it was just a mindset thing,” she said. “If I wanted the ball and the ball was in the air, I’m gonna go get it. It really helped me get physical, and along with the games we had in preseason it kinda built my confidence up. Like, ‘I know we’re gonna play in the SEC, and there’s some big girls,’ but just gotta do what you gotta do.”
Carter will need that mentality when she returns to full practices, fighting not only to complete her recovery but to maintain her starting role. She’s got more competition for minutes with the arrival of Ramani Parker and Nyayongah Gony through the portal, the return of Jessika Carter and the growth of Charlotte Kohl last season.
The competition for positions will be further motivation for a player who has thrived off of pressure so far in her career, as well as relieve the kind of burden the team had last year playing so many minutes with only a couple of players available off the bench. But Carter remains confident in herself.
“Throughout this process, the rehab process, I’ve been very dedicated to getting myself better so I can get back out there with my team and do what they need me to do for them,” she said.