Height of her game: After breakout season, Alexander ready to lead Syracuse on both ends of floor

first_img Comments Joe Alexander refused to make it easy. In the driveway of his Ontario home, he spent hours playing games of 21 with his daughter, Kayla, trying to build up her basketball acumen. The 6-foot-5 former Niagara forward challenged her as if she had been playing the sport as long as he had. If she was going to win, she was going to have to beat her father without the benefit of any intentionally missed shots. ‘What I tried to get across to her was the mental aspect,’ Joe Alexander said. ‘The understanding that you were going to have to compete for everything.’ That driveway hoop was the site of the beginning of Kayla Alexander’s basketball career, but it was also the place of countless defeats. She could rarely beat her father, but each one of those losses built up her mental toughness. On the occasions that she did win, her confidence soared. Unlike her defeats to her father in 21, Alexander has rarely failed during her time at SU. She has transformed from a raw, lanky freshman to a strong junior center who was a 2011 All-Big East First-Team selection last season. Now, on an Orange team determined to break out of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament and fight its way toward receiving an NCAA tournament berth, Alexander’s production in the frontcourt on both offense and defense is going to be key. From her freshman to sophomore season, Alexander scored four more points per game to average just less than 15 per game. She gathered in 69 more rebounds last season and also had 22 more blocks.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text She and forward Iasia Hemingway were the focal points of opposing teams’ defenses all season long. SU forced the ball inside where Alexander could score through a variety of post moves or be fouled. She’s a 76.6 percent free-throw shooter. ‘I think she’s taken more of a leadership role of just demanding the basketball,’ SU head coach Quentin Hillsman said. ‘I think as she catches it and as she scores, that’s as good as we are.’ From a driveway in Canada to the go-to scorer for Syracuse, Alexander has come a long way. She didn’t start playing basketball until she was 13 years old. Joe Alexander said he never tried to get his daughter involved in the sport because he never thought Alexander had any interest. So it came as a surprise when she came home one day and told him she was trying out for Canada’s version of an AAU team. Alexander had the size and some general understanding of the game, but Joe Alexander saw how much improvement she needed. The former college player’s genes passed down the physical attributes Alexander would need — mainly her height — but not the natural basketball ability. Alexander’s follow-through was nearly nonexistent. Her strength needed to be built up or else ‘she didn’t have a prayer’ at making a shot while opponents were making contact. The ball would go flying as soon as it left her hand, Joe Alexander said. ‘It was quite obvious that she lacked the skill,’ he said. ‘She lacked the overall basketball knowledge.’ What Alexander lacked in natural ability, though, she made up for with an unmatched work ethic. When the coaches in Canada taught her something new, whether it was on the court or in the weight room, Alexander spent time on her own after practice working on it. After many of her team’s practices, Joe Alexander would arrive at the gym and shoot around with his daughter. He constantly implored Alexander to bend her knees to give the ball more of a push so it gets to the basket. He made sure her release point was nearly perfect. When Alexander was playing for the Canadian national team, the coach told her father she was the hardest-working player. ‘As she progressed, she had something her dad didn’t have,’ Joe Alexander said. ‘I was a little different. Things came naturally, so I didn’t work hard. She has this unbelievable work ethic.’ Alexander was a fairly unknown recruit out of Canada. Not necessarily a blue-chip prospect, Alexander had an impressive high school career, including a national championship with Team Ontario in 2008. And she also played on the Under-18 Canadian National Team that same year. She received recruiting letters from several schools, and one day while sifting through to find a couple to respond to, the one from Syracuse stood out. Of all the offers, playing at Syracuse had the combination of athletics and academics she was searching for.  Most of all, she trusted the coaches. And so did her father. He didn’t want anyone to tell her she’d be guaranteed playing time, but instead wanted coaches to tell Alexander she was going to have to earn it. ‘I was looking through different letters I got from various coaches, and I just called (associate head) coach (Matt) Luneau,’ Alexander said. ‘He and my dad got a conversation going. We got good relationships with the coaches. They’re good people, which is important to me.’ Even now, years removed from the days of having to work in the Ontario high school gyms and in her driveway, Alexander can still list what she needs to improve. The work ethic that earned her a starting spot in the Orange lineup hasn’t waned. That includes everything from getting faster on the court to committing fewer fouls. Joe Alexander said his daughter’s strength has been built up tremendously with the help of Ryan Cabiles, SU’s director of strength and conditioning, but it is still an ‘ongoing process.’ ‘You can always learn something new,’ Alexander said. ‘You’re never going to be perfect. Wherever you are, you always want to boost it up and improve yourself. I think every year, there’s always something to improve on.’ Instead of battling her father, Alexander now takes on SU’s backup center Shakeya Leary in practice every day. It’s a matchup between two dynamic centers who match each other’s competitiveness. Hillsman allows his centers to play physically in practice, rarely calling fouls to help build toughness and strength for Big East conference games. And it’s Leary’s presence that allows Alexander to keep developing. ‘She’s just willing to work to get better every day,’ Leary said. ‘She has that mentality and that’s what makes her a real great player.’ As Alexander’s strength and skill have advanced, her confidence on the floor has also gone to the next level. Her father, coaches and teammates have watched the progression. And this season, the Orange will continue to reap the benefits.  ‘She’s going to do a lot this year,’ Hemingway said. ‘She’s going to make us a great team.’ [email protected] Facebook Twitter Google+center_img Published on November 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm Contact Chris: [email protected] | @chris_isemanlast_img

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