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WKU WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

WKU signee Collett adopts 'I can get through it' mindset

South Laurel senior and future Lady Topper grows from roller coaster year

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Ally Collett

South Laurel’s Ally Collett (right) dribbles down the court March 12 during the Lady Cardinals’ first-round KHSAA Sweet Sixteen game against Sacred Heart at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

South Laurel senior Ally Collett signed with the Western Kentucky women’s basketball team in November, but her final year of high school hasn’t gone according to plan since.

She had aspirations of leading her team to the state tournament for the first time in over a decade, and then a knee injury initially left her ruled out for the season, but a phone call with WKU head coach Greg Collins led to a second opinion and her return.

She then helped South Laurel to a 13th Region title and a berth in the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen, where the Lady Cardinals upset Sacred Heart, but once the joy of victory subsided, the reality of another sudden stoppage started to set in. Her season, along with those of the other remaining participants, was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s resulted, however, is a mindset change after a talk with former Lady Cardinal Lauren Wombles.

“She told me – she had tore up her knee when she was in college – and she told me that after she got through that, it was like ‘Well, I can get through anything now.’ That’s really true, because after I got through all the workouts and when I finally got to play again ... I realized I can get through anything regardless of how hard it is,” Collett said in a phone interview with the Daily News. “If I put my mind to it, I can get through it.”

•••

Collins learned of Collett from a coaching friend as she was beginning high school. She played in 13 varsity games as a seventh grader, then led the team with 404 points as an eighth grader.

“He was very high on her and you watched her and you could tell that she did all the right things that a young player should,” Collins said in a phone interview with the Daily News. “She was aggressive, she was fast and she had great work ethic.”

Collett continued to shine, scoring 457 points as a freshman – second on the team to Eastern Kentucky signee and her best friend, Amerah Steele – and was the leading scorer as a sophomore at 19.6 points per game.

South Laurel’s 2017-18 season ended March 2 in the region semifinals with a loss to Harlan County and, less than a month later, Michelle Clark-Heard left her post as WKU’s head coach for the same position at Cincinnati. Clark-Heard and the Lady Toppers came with one of the first of eight Division I offers Collett received, she says.

When Collins was promoted from his position as an assistant, he let Collett know the Lady Toppers still wanted her on The Hill. The two talked before the summer, and Collett indicated she intended to come to WKU.

“I was scared when they got a new coach, but then when I found out it was coach Collins, I was like, ‘Well this is actually good,’ ” Collett said. “He called my high school coach and told him that my offer still stood and I was like, ‘Oh, well thank the Lord.’ ”

She announced her commitment via Twitter on Sept. 29, 2018, before the start of her junior season.

Ally Collett

South Laurel's Ally Collett reacts March 12 during the Lady Cardinals first round KHSAA Sweet Sixteen game against Sacred Heart at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

•••

Chris Souder came to South Laurel in November 2018. He coached Mercer County to back-to-back state titles with star-studded teams led by Miss Basketball Seygan Robbins, and resigned following the 2017-18 season. He took an assistant coaching job at Indiana State and stayed for a couple of months before resigning, stating it wasn’t a good fit. When South Laurel called, he knew he’d have talent to work with, and accepted the position.

“Ally was one of the kids that was on our radar, or on my radar, that we wanted to recruit at Indiana State,” Souder said in a phone interview with the Daily News. “I was just trying to think of Kentucky kids and she’s one of the first ones that popped into my head.”

Entering her junior season, Collins wanted Collett to work on defense and getting teammates involved. It’s something Souder emphasized, and playing AAU for Kentucky Premier helped with the improvements, too.

“It’s night and day between when I first got here and now finishing the season. She went from where I might have had to hide her a little bit to not having a problem putting her on a team’s best player,” Souder said. “That’s a testament to her work ethic.”

Collett thanks Souder and her father, Landry Collett, for much of her improvements, but Souder directs it back to the guard. Along with improved defense and assists numbers, Collett continued to score at a high rate.

She became the program’s all-time leading scorer midway through her junior season, when she averaged 20.9 points. Her coaches credit her production to a quick release, an explosive first step and an ability to finish.

“She’s fearless. She’ll attack anybody,” Souder said. “Then I got here and I figured out the reason why is because she works so hard and, in fact, she’s one of those kids that we’ll say, ‘Take a break. Take a day off. You don’t have to do this 365 days a year. You don’t have to do that. You need to let your body rest.’ But she has such an ‘I’ve got to get better, I’ve got to get better’ (attitude), and some of that, too, is she just loves the game.”

•••

Collett was one of three players to sign with WKU on Nov. 13 – Jenna Kallenberg and Selma Kulo were the others – and a few weeks later she started her senior season with 32 points in a 75-47 win at Lincoln County. She averaged 20.6 points through South Laurel’s 10-2 start.

The Lady Cardinals lost to Sacred Heart 74-50 on Jan. 4, and followed it with a three-point loss to Casey County three days later.

The next day in practice, the team suffered a bigger loss.

As the Jan. 8 training session was winding down, Collett drove, fell and landed on her right knee. The senior cried – a rarity for her, she says – but eventually limped to the trainer’s room. She went home, iced and jogged somewhat through her home to try to convince her father she was fine, but a trip to get it checked out was planned for the next morning.

Collett struggled with the stairs leading down to her room that evening and woke up frequently throughout the night. In the morning, her leg was swollen and, when she tried to bend it, she started crying again.

“It was like my knee was being stabbed with 100 knives,” she said. “I tried to get up and get ready and I could not walk on it at all. I’m telling you, it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt.”

She went to a physical therapist, who sent her to Bluegrass Orthopedics in Lexington. She got an MRI and X-ray, and was informed she had partially torn her posterior cruciate ligament.

“I was like, ‘OK, this is fine. So when will I be back? When do you think I can start playing again?’ He said, ‘Oh, no. You’re out four to five months. You’ll be playing basketball again whenever you get to Western, but not before that,’ “ Collett said. “ ... I just looked at my dad and said, ‘I never won a region,’ and just started balling my eyes out.”

As the next few days passed, Collett saw hope as the pain subsided. She talked to Collins, who recommended she get a second opinion and helped set an appointment.

About a week after the injury, Collett made a trip to Bowling Green to see WKU team doctor Abigail DeBusk, who delivered much more promising news. Instead of being out until June, she was told she could play again in four to six weeks.

Collett began physical therapy at PT Pros in London the next day and, within about two and a half weeks, she was ready to go, but was held out for the full four weeks.

“It was kicking her tail, but she just kept coming back for more. The guy told me several times, ‘Man, this girl’s amazing with how hard she’s working,’ “ Souder said. “ ... She’s like, ‘I’ve got a chance to win the region. I’ve got to get back.’ She was a pretty determined young lady and she pulled it off.”

Ally Collett

South Laurel’s Ally Collett puts up a shot March 12 during the Lady Cardinals’ first round KHSAA Sweet Sixteen game against Sacred Heart at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

•••

South Laurel won eight straight games after Collett’s injury before a loss to Scott County. Collett was slated to return the following game at Hazard on Feb. 13. Souder was planning to play her sparingly against the team South Laurel beat by 25 earlier in the season.

That didn’t sit well with Collett, however.

“I was going to bring her off the bench and ease her in, but Ally being Ally said, ‘Why would you do that? I’m released. I want to play. Put me back in the starting lineup,’ “ Souder said. “Most kids wouldn’t have even said that. If anybody would have earned that, it was her.”

Collett scored 13 points and South Laurel won 71-56, then won back-to-back games before falling to Butler in the regular-season finale.

South Laurel opened the postseason with a 95-71 50th District semifinal win over Williamsburg. Collett had 25 points, but that’s not what stuck out. What did was a play when the ball was rolling out of bounds and she dove in an unsuccessful attempt to save it. She had been cautious in the four games leading up to the postseason opener, but there was no hesitation then.

“When I dove on the floor, I just remember that moment I was like, ‘OK, I’m back.’ “

Collett scored 17 points in a blowout victory over Whitley County in the district final and added 40 points over three 13th Region Tournament games to help South Laurel to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2008.

•••

Next up was Sacred Heart, the second-ranked team in the final AP poll and the team that beat the Lady Cardinals by 24 in January.

The Valkyries took a three-point lead into halftime, but 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions early in the third quarter pushed the Lady Cardinals ahead. South Laurel never trailed after and held on for a 58-57 victory.

Collett played all 32 minutes, tallying 12 points, six assists and three steals.

But as the team was leaving the Rupp Arena floor, Souder was informed of the tournament’s suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a super high, probably the best win in South Laurel’s program in 20 years and maybe ever,” Souder said. “And then you get back in there and kind of get that gut punch.”

He then had to inform his three seniors – Collett, Steele and Sydnie Hall – before the four took the podium for the postgame news conference.

“It was hard to hear, but it was really hard to be upset about it because after such a big win, it’s really hard to be sad over anything,” Collett said.

Around that time, WKU was in Frisco, Texas, preparing to play Charlotte in its first game of the Conference USA Tournament. Collins called to congratulate Collett, then calmed some frustration of being told of another abrupt ending to her high school career.

“I remember telling her, ‘Timeout. Young lady, I remember talking to somebody about two months ago when she was in her room crying because she didn’t think she was going to be able to play basketball the rest of the season,’ “ Collins said. “ ‘We’ve worked through that and you got to the doctors that you needed to be at, you got to rehab with a physical therapist and you got through that, and you got to play in the district tournament and win, play in the regional tournament and win ... and then got to play in the state tournament in a big game against a great team and win. There’s a lot of young ladies that don’t get those opportunities.’ “

Ally Collett

Ally Collett (3) and South Laurel teammates celebrate March 12 after beating Sacred Heart 58-57 in the first round of the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

Weeks have passed and the Sweet Sixteen remains postponed. The Lady Cardinals have gone their separate ways, unable to practice and unsure if the season is over or not.

“There’s still that glimmer of hope or thread that we’re hanging on to,” Souder said. “But it’s nice. That’s what I told those seniors – ‘Your better days are ahead of you, so once they lift all this, if you’re able to finish we’ll work, and if you’re getting ready for college we’ll work.’ “

Collett took time off to allow her knee rest and has already been trying to find ways to train despite statewide closures. Collett has undoubtedly left her mark at South Laurel, but if the suspension is lifted, she’ll surely be ready to attempt to lead her team to a state title.

“Ally has over 2,600 points, over 1,000 assists. My goodness. All-around kid with a 4.0 GPA. And what I tell people all the time about Ally is she’s a great player, but she’s a great person,” Souder said. “I tell people all the time, ‘If you can’t like Ally Collett, then you’ve got a problem.’ “

And whenever her high school career is officially over, Collett will make the transition to college basketball at WKU, where Collins believes she’ll quickly become a fan favorite as another in a long line of in-state recruits.

“It’s great to add another great young lady from Kentucky to this tradition,” Collins said. “We’re going to continue to try to get the best players in Kentucky that want to come to Bowling Green, and Ally’s another one. We’re proud of it.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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