Kentucky Women’s Basketball needs more size down low, there is no denying that anymore.
Since the end of the 2015-16 season, the Wildcats have been a below-average rebounding team. When it comes to snaring defensive rebounds and keeping opponents off the glass, Kentucky performed well below the threshold of what was considered average. Rebounding issues were one of the more notable factors that hindered the ‘Cats chances of success in the second half of the 2020-21 season.
Kentucky could score at an efficient and high clip and the team defense on the perimeter was sound for the most part. What plagued UK more than anything down the stretch was an inability to stop opposing centers. It cost them multiple, winnable games, including two terrible losses to Ole Miss late in the schedule and an early exit in the SEC Tournament to Georgia. The tallest player on the roster, Olivia Owens, didn’t even play in the postseason loss to UGA in which the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-4 center, Jenna Staiti, recorded 20 points and 12 rebounds without any resistance from the Kentucky frontcourt.
Rebounding issues and a lack of height down low aren’t anything new to the program, though. Before Kyra Elzy took over as head coach just a couple of weeks before the 2020-21 regular season tipped off, former head coach Matthew Mitchell was met with the same challenges. He emphasized speed in the backcourt–outrunning and outhustling opponents to victory, which worked well to an extent. Elzy inherited a similar roster makeup that was heavy on crafty guards and stretch forwards. What they’re missing is an impactful player in the middle.
It’s up to Elzy to make those adjustments in the paint that have yet to come. The new transfer portal rules can help in that area, although Kentucky has yet to add anyone from there. But Elzy has time to do so and an incoming recruit who can help fast-track the entire process.
Tionna Herron, a class of 2022 6-foot-4 post player out of DeSoto, Texas, announced her commitment to Kentucky back in December of 2020. The four-star prospect became Elzy’s first official commitment as a head coach, but Herron is important for more than just that reason–she can provide a combination of size and athleticism that is at a premium right now in college basketball. Outside shooting is more important now than it ever has been, which means finding a post player who fits that offensive mold while also being able to make an impact in the paint, is rare yet necessary.
— Tionna Herron (@TREEvibess) December 21, 2020
Herron took an official visit to Lexington back in June, her first time on campus since announcing her commitment late last year. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she never even got the chance to meet with Coach Mitchell before he unexpectedly retired, and she only got to meet Coach Elzy in person for the first time during this short trip. That being said, Herron didn’t need to see much during her visit before confirming what she already thought: Kentucky was the place she wanted to be with the coaches she wants to be surrounded by.
“Really it was the relationship I had with them,” Herron told KSR on Tuesday about the Kentucky coaching staff. “It was very welcoming to me and my mom and I felt that I would fit in there great. The environment, the way that they play, it’s more of my style.”
Finally got a chance to visit a great school & even greater coaching staff! Coach Elzy y’all got a great defender, play maker, shot blocker-deflector & an overall great kid coming your way!! ?? #GreatDecisionTionna #YEScommitted! pic.twitter.com/eMUfcmbp9X
— Angel (@AWorlds_) June 28, 2021
Herron’s mother, Angel, was along for the official visit, too, making the long drive from Texas all the way to Kentucky with her daughter.
“It was fun,” Angel told KSR about the visit. “It was a lot to take in over a few days but we enjoyed the visit. We got a lot of history about Kentucky. Met all the players and got a lot about academics and what the expectations are.”
Angel recalls Coach Elzy, on multiple occasions, mentioning how excited she was to have someone with Herron’s skillset on the future roster.
“Elzy, she did mention a lot how excited she was to finally have a big–she said that a lot–that can run the floor,” Angel added. “They want plays that don’t show up in the stat book.”
That awareness from Elzy is music to the ears of Kentucky fans everywhere who have been clamoring for more height in the paint the last several years. During the visit, the Kentucky staff broke down film with Herron and her mother, putting Herron into the action, showing where she would fit in and how she would play.
Herron is an excellent rebounder for DeSoto High School where she plays alongside a slew of highly ranked prospects, a couple of which have some Kentucky interest. But Herron is more than just a body in the paint; she blocks shots, finishes around the rim, runs the floor, can knock down shots from the mid-range, and is incredibly long.
Her length is arguably her most intriguing attribute as she heads into her senior high school season. It was the impressive length of opposing post players that gave Kentucky fits on several occasions this past season.
Interestingly enough, despite playing out of Texas, Herron’s college decision came down to two programs that are all too familiar with each other: UK and the Louisville Cardinals. There were schools from the Texas area recruiting her, but the Bluegrass State programs had the better pitch.
“It was down to two schools, Kentucky and Louisville,” Herron told KSR. “It came down to the relationship I had with each coach and where I felt like it was more comforting to me.”
The reason she went with Kentucky over Louisville? For starters, Herron will have a greater opportunity to play right away with the ‘Cats, but she also believes that Coch Elzy and the rest of the staff can help her reach her goals.
“Louisville, I felt like they could meet the standards that I had originally,” Herron said. “But with Kentucky it’s like, if I go and I do what I’m supposed to do, then I can get to where I want to be… The relationship that I have with the coaches–I just feel really good and have that guardianship over me. [They] keep me in check.”
And where she ultimately wants to be is in the WNBA, or at the very least playing somewhere overseas where she can travel and explore other parts of the world. But before Herron can reach those goals, she has one more year of high school to tackle and hopefully a successful run at the collegiate level in front of her.
Herron is still a full season away from stepping on campus, but the value she can bring to Kentucky down the road is already worth the hype.