WHEELERSBURG —For Kaylee Darnell, her college basketball career at the University of Rio Grande is only — believe it or not — half a season young.
Yet, you would never know it —by the way the freshman from Wheelersburg has started every game, played plenty of minutes, and even made recent RedStorm history.
That’s because the five-foot and six-inch tall Darnell dominates already at the collegiate level —and recently received River States Conference Women’s Basketball Player of the Week honors, for the opening week in January.
How so you ask?
How about Darnell dialing up 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for a rarefied-air triple-double — in the RedStorm’s 100-96 shootout win over IU-Southeast two weeks ago.
Yep, that’s correct.
Only a 5-6 true college freshman, but already playing far bigger — and perhaps for far longer in terms of minutes than maybe even she expected at the season’s outset.
The RedStorm are now 19-1, including a perfect 7-0 and atop the RSC — with a 14-1 road record coupled with an unblemished 5-0 home mark.
“It’s definitely exceeded them (her own expectations). Coming in as a freshman, I am playing a lot more than I thought I would. And I really love it and enjoy it up there. Love the girls on the team and Coach (David) Smalley and the whole coaching staff. A really good coaching staff who made it easy for me,” said Darnell, in an interview at Wheelersburg High School a week ago. “I didn’t know how easy it would be coming in as a freshman and taking on a role like I am playing right now, but my teammates and coaching staff have made it really easy to come with the flow of the game.”
So far for the former Lady Pirate, a three-time all-Southeast District Division III first-team selection by the Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association and all-Ohio first-teamer as a senior, it’s been quite smooth sailing.
With rounded-up numbers, she is averaging a dozen points per game, including 17 per in conference clashes —along with 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Darnell has started all 20 RedStorm tilts, and averages 28 minutes per game, which is second on the squad by a mere three-tenths of a minute — to former Southeastern star Ella Skeens (28.3 minutes per game).
Truth be told, those averages all increased based on her performance from two weeks back (Jan. 8) —when she recorded her first career triple-double, either in high school OR college.
She played all 40 minutes against IU-Southeast, as the NAIA’s 18th-ranked RedStorm registered an important victory.
Darnell shot 9-of-14 from the field for a blistering 64-percent, which included 2-of-4 from three-point territory.
She also meshed 4-of-5 foul shots, and contributed defensively for two steals and two blocked shots.
For those into history, it was Rio Grande’s sixth all-time triple-double —but the first since Sydney Holden, another Wheelersburg standout, hit for one of her career four in a 114-109 loss against Ohio Christian University in February 2020.
Darnell said the feat for sure came as a surprise, but “it means a lot that I got one and I am thankful that I did.”
“I had no idea that I had got it. I know one of my teammates turned to me and said in the third quarter, ‘I bet you have a triple-double’. I thought there was no way,” she said. “I had no idea, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. With the assists, your teammates are in the right place at the right time and make the shots, so that makes it easy on my part. Sydney Holden has four of the six, and I am just following in her footsteps.”
Indeed she is, from both Wheelersburg to a Rio wrecking crew.
Lord willing, with three-and-a-half more seasons of sustained good health and top-notch play, Darnell could ultimately surpass Holden in the all-time triple-double department.
Darnell and Holden are close friends, and longtime and successful URG women’s head coach David Smalley said that connection —along with other factors —forged Rio “relentlessly” into recruiting Darnell.
“Kaylee had a rock-star reputation as one of the premiere high school players in all of Southeastern Ohio, so she was high on our recruiting wish list. (URG women’s assistant coach Brandon) Coach Bias was relentless through the recruiting process. She (Darnell) has a solid work ethic and high basketball IQ. That makes my job a lot easier,” said Smalley, having coached at Rio Grande for the past three decades. “We are blessed to have her, she is a quality person, a complete team player, and she is a freshman performing at an extra-high level.”
A high level indeed, and record-breaking perhaps, said Smalley.
“She is well on her way to establishing new records and breaking previous records as a freshman. I don’t think I’ve ever had a freshman come in earn conference Player of the Week, and Kaylee is our first freshman to ever have a triple-double,” said the coach. “Offensively, she is the best stop-and-pop mid-range jump shooter that I’ve ever had in my program. She is deceptively quick, she is athletic, she jumps, she can get it to the glass, she sees the floor extremely well, she handles and distributes the ball well and can go right and left. For a freshman, she is cool as a cucumber and she must have ice in her veins. She plays extremely hard, she plays solid, has stamina to play 40 minutes every game, never takes a play off and her emotions never play into it. She is 100-percent all in. No issues, no excuses, is totally invested in our program, and she never questions philosophies or policies. She does so many things, she goes hard on both defense and offense, and is one of the most positive statistically-quiet performers I’ve ever coached. Until I see the final stats, I am usually amazed at the total body of work statistically for Kaylee for that particular game. It’s not flashy, it’s just good solid basketball by her.”
Darnell has even had “a couple of ESPN highlights,” which Smalley remarked upon.
Speaking of going national, the initial and recent release of the NAIA’s RPI ranked the RedStorm fifth for the entire nation —out of 237 total teams.
Their only loss was a narrow non-conference contest against Pikeville, 79-76.
The RedStorm have, however, only played two tilts since Dec. 30 (Jan. 8 against IU-Southeast and Jan. 11 against Midway) — and none since Jan. 11, because of the program’s coronavirus situation.
They return to action on Saturday (Jan. 22) at Alice Lloyd College.
Darnell is glad play is resuming for the RedStorm, and certainly seeks to pick up from where she left off 11 days ago.
That’s because, for her freshman campaign, so far so good —as she has indeed excelled.
“We get to start play again in conference, and after that is the (NAIA) National Tournament. So I am really excited for that to come,” said Darnell. “It’s gone as good as it could go so far. Academics going good too.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved