Toughness, energy, consistency.
All are things Kansas University women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson has searched for from her young team during the 2013-14 season, and all are strengths of freshman guard Keyla Morgan.
So it makes sense that, out of nowhere, Morgan has found her way into the Jayhawks’ starting lineup during the past four games.
Despite becoming a fixture in KU’s first five, Morgan still remembers the moment she found out she had been promoted from key bench player to rookie starter just before KU’s victory over Texas Southern.
“It was before the pre-game meal and (Henrickson) gave out the starting lineup and who was gonna match up with who,” Morgan recalled. “Everyone was like, ‘Whoa.’ And I was like, ‘My name. Wow.’”
After letting it sink in and wolfing down the meal, Morgan rushed to her cell phone to call her mom, Gervettie Green.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Mom, I’m starting tonight,’” Morgan reenacted. “And she just said, ‘OK, just keep doing whatever you’re doing.’ My mom is one of my biggest role models. I was definitely surprised. It caught everybody by surprise. But we just roll with it. I’m not asking to be a starter. It’s just whatever coach Bonnie and the team need me to do.”
Fortunately for Henrickson and the Jayhawks (7-5), Morgan’s play has been a lot less surprising than the news of her promotion.
A 5-foot-8 former four-year prep starter at Long Beach Poly High in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., Morgan made a name for herself early in her career by being one of the players Henrickson could count on to bring energy off the bench. After playing just eight combined minutes in her first two appearances of the season, the player who led her high school team to a state championship earlier this year saw her time on the floor jump with 16 minutes in a loss to No. 2 Duke in the Virgin Islands. In the five games since then, Morgan has not played fewer than 21 minutes and made all four of her starts.
Asked if she was surprised that such a young player could make such a quick leap from seldom-used reserve to fifth starter all before conference play arrived, Henrickson said no and explained why she made the move.
“What we watched every day was her try to get better and better and better and be coachable and try to get it right,” she said. “In this program, that’s proven to be pretty successful for a lot of people.”
Morgan’s statistics still do not jump off the page. In eight games she’s averaging just 7.1 points per game on 49 percent shooting in 17 minutes a game. But her turnovers are low, her positive-impact plays are high and she’s contributing as both a three-point shooter (5-of-10 on the season) and at the free throw line (71 percent).
“I’m just playing my role, whatever coach Bonnie wants me to do,” Morgan said. “If the team feeds off my energy, that’s what I’ll give the most. ... It feels good being a starter, but I’m a team player.”
The Jayhawks open the conference portion of their season at 7 p.m. Thursday, when they play host to West Virginia.