LAWRENCE — Seeking a rare sixth year of college basketball participation following last October’s season-ending ACL injury, Kansas guard Jessica Washington fretted less than one might expect over what she would write in an eligibility request letter to the NCAA.
Given her unfortunate circumstance, Washington was certain the argument made itself.
“There really was no convincing,” Washington said Wednesday. “I didn’t get to play my senior year, so I think everybody deserves to have four years to play at the collegiate level.”
The NCAA agreed.
Washington received her eligibility and leads a suddenly deep Jayhawk women’s squad that features seven seniors and speed throughout the roster.
A 5-foot-8 native of Tulsa, Okla., and former five-star recruit, Washington transferred to KU from North Carolina ahead of the 2015-16 season. After sitting that campaign out, Washington starred as a junior, finishing strong to lead the Big 12 in scoring in league action at 19.3 points per game en route to being named the conference’s newcomer of the year in 2016-17.
Then came the devastating blow when, just a handful of days into the 2017-18 preseason, Washington tore the ACL in her right knee on a non-contact incident in practice. Without Washington, last year’s Jayhawks limped to a 12-18 overall record and 3-15 mark in Big 12 play, missing the postseason for a fifth straight year.
Coming to terms with the injury wasn’t easy, Washington admitted. She remembered the team’s preseason home opener against Emporia State as a particularly rough day.
“I mean, at first it was tough. Walking into Allen Fieldhouse that first game I couldn’t play was really emotional,” said Washington, who averaged 17 points and 4.1 rebounds as a junior. “But at the same time I got to look at everything from a different perspective. I think that really grew me as a player and as a teammate.
“I’ve really just taken it all as a learning experience. Like, if I wouldn’t have been here this year then I wouldn’t have been able to play with the girls that I get to play with this year. I think it’s all just a blessing in disguise.”
Granted the sixth year by the NCAA, Washington is extra firepower for a team fourth-year coach Brandon Schneider indicated has a postseason-or-bust mentality.
″(Her injury) was very disappointing for her and for our program, but I think looking back, this team with her has a lot more potential and a lot more weapons than maybe last year’s team did,” Schneider said. “So I think she’s continued to grow, continued to mature and hopefully, like I said, she’ll be an important piece.”
While she’s fully cleared to return, Washington is being eased back into action by Schneider, whose program is taking a cautious approach with the team’s 7 p.m. Nov. 7 season opener against UMKC at Allen Fieldhouse still more than a month away.
Despite the injury, Washington said there was never a doubt in her mind she wanted her career to continue — and continue in Lawrence.
“Oh no, no, no, I love playing here at KU and just this college experience,” Washington said. “You move on to the next level, you don’t really get everything you get at the Division I college level, especially here at Kansas. To get that year back, get another year of school paid for, it’s a blessing.
“Who wouldn’t take another free year of school, especially with the girls that we’re going to be playing with this year?”
One of those girls, senior guard Kylee Kopatich, said Washington’s injury was “a big bummer” for the team but added everything might work out even better with her a member of this year’s squad.
“Even incoming freshmen were excited about it because they didn’t think they’d get the opportunity to play with her,” Kopatich said. “I’m excited to play with her one more year.”
Senior forward Austin Richardson said if any doubt crept into Washington’s mind about returning for a sixth college season, the guard never showed it.
“She’s a hard-working person. She’s always in the gym. She does what she has to do in terms of rehab,” Richardson said. “Of course there were times when she was down, but she always finds a way to pick herself back up and remember why she’s playing this sport.”
Her spirit unbroken, Washington’s confidence appears unchanged as well. Asked how her jumper looks, well, it’s probably best to just let the senior speak for herself.
“My jumper? Oh, I never lost my jumper. Come on now,” Washington said with a laugh. “Got to stay in the gym every day. My passion for basketball hasn’t changed. I think my process and my journey has just been a little extended.”