The SEC Blog: LSU's Mitchell proves to be one of a kind
Nikki Fargas had an idea. Start Ayana Mitchell. On Senior Day.
Without context, the idea sounds like an exquisite grasp of the obvious. The redshirt senior, a two-time All-SEC double-double machine, had become a fixture in the LSU lineup and the Baton Rouge community. Her rebounding ferocity was surpassed only by her passion for community service.
"That was part of the legacy she'll leave," the LSU coach said. "She'll go down as one of the best players to play here."
Why wouldn't the star student-athlete known as "Ya" start on Senior Day? Because the young woman who meant so much to LSU and to SEC women's basketball had been through so much. The last cruel hand she was dealt - a knee injury suffered three weeks earlier. A torn ACL meant she would play no more for the Tigers.
"It hurt our hearts," Fargas said. "To see her go down. What more does this kid have to endure? It's not fair."
It seemed only fair to let her start on Senior Day against Georgia, even if it would be in ceremonial fashion, but this was a key game late in the SEC season, the kind of game where every possession matters. Georgia coach Joni Taylor would have to give her consent. Her friendship with Fargas and her admiration for Mitchell made it an easy decision.
"I would like to think any coach in our league would do the same thing," Taylor said. "Ayana Mitchell is what the SEC looks like. We were all crushed when we heard she went down. She was having a monster season. Our hearts broke for her."
There's a distinct bond among women's basketball coaches in the Southeastern Conference. You hear it, see it and feel it at SEC Media Days as they share stories. They're serious competitors, of course, but they're also colleagues in the truest sense.
Fargas and Taylor said they talk all the time. Taylor said the coaches currently have a regular group text concerning the COVID-19 crisis that cut many of their seasons short.
"We check in on each other," Taylor said. "How are you navigating this? We have a base of respect for what each of us does every day."
Eight years earlier, Fargas had another LSU senior, Destini Hughes, suffer a season-ending knee injury. Fargas made a similar Senior Day request of then-Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, who also agreed.
After Mitchell got hurt against Texas A&M in early February, Fargas said she received concerned calls or texts "from pretty much all the coaches in our league. That's the caliber of people we have in this league."
As Fargas and Taylor shared, Mitchell personified that praise as a player and a person. She made an impact through much more than the numbers she put up and the games she helped the Tigers win. Consider her quick answer when you ask her favorite LSU basketball memory.
On Senior Night 2018 against Alabama, her best friend and teammate Raigyne Louis "decided to foul out," Mitchell said. With LSU down two points in the final seconds, Mitchell scored on a sideline out-of-bounds play that wasn't drawn up for her to send the game to overtime.
"Rai jumped on me and tackled me," Mitchell said, and LSU made the memory even better by prevailing in overtime. What Mitchell doesn't mention is she scored a career-high 27 points and blocked a final Alabama shot to preserve the victory.
Fargas remembers, right after the MRI confirmed Mitchell had torn her ACL in February, the senior gave the LSU team a pep talk.
"She told her teammates, 'This is an opportunity to show how great you are,' " Fargas said. "She used her injury to uplift her teammates and let them know it was their time to shine. That's something special."
Mitchell now is off her crutches, rehabbing her knee with the remote guidance of her trainer to abide by social distancing guidelines. She knows the drill, having overcome a torn ACL in high school and back surgery as an LSU freshman that earned her a medical redshirt.
"It taught me I could be more than a ballplayer," she said.
She's considering playing overseas when healthy and entering the WNBA a year from now. She's also contemplating how best to continue her commitment to serve, especially the local students she's mentored.
"I love playing basketball because it allows me to go out in the community and do things for people," she said. "I love the game, but I don't see myself playing for years and years. There's a lot of people I want to touch."
As she prepares for life after LSU, she'll remember Senior Day. Putting on the uniform one last time. Hearing her name introduced and feeling the love from everyone in the building. Receiving the tip and holding it for a backcourt violation so she could return to the safety of the bench. She'll remember the kindness of Fargas and Taylor that made it happen.
"I was very emotional," Mitchell said. "It was special for me that Coach Joni allowed that. It was her heart. It was about more than basketball. For my coaches, for Coach Nikki to do this for me, my love for her and her love for me is indescribable. To be with my girls one more time, to hear my name one more time, it was very special."
It was SEC women's basketball.