She figured it was a neutral court. That is, until she really thought about it.
Whenever Dekeiya Cohen gets together with her dad and brothers, the four of them always have a shooting competition to see who’s the best shooter in the house. Her family will be in Waco for Senior Night on Monday, when the third-ranked Lady Bears host West Virginia.
The South Carolina native figured the main court inside the Ferrell Center could be neutral ground for the latest in the Cohen family-shooting contests. That or the Lady Bears’ practice court.
Then again, how neutral would it be?
These courts have molded the senior guard into the four-time regular season Big 12 champ she is, with a deadly midrange jumper and plenty of grit and more to pull down rebound after rebound.
There’s a different court, though, that shaped Dekeiya into who she is today. It’s this court that shaped her personality, her work ethic and everything else that stood out to the Baylor coaching staff 1,200 miles away from Charleston.
It was on this court, when she was younger, she counted down the imaginary game clock before launching what could be the biggest game-winner in the history of basketball. It’s where she admittedly still hasn’t beaten her dad or her brothers in their regular shooting contests. It’s where she began dreaming of playing basketball in college, where she emulated her favorite players she watched on television.
And it’s where her dogged work ethic began. Had that persistence not been crafted on the concrete court outside, Cohen may not be the consistent force she is this season for Baylor.
From Dekeiya’s perspective, her father’s favorite thing to say to her when they were practicing outside on the concrete court was, “There’s some girl on the other side of the country out in California who is working harder.”
When she says it now, Cohen grins and shakes her head. She remembers the times she didn’t feel like getting up and her father would answer, “Oh, some girl is working right now on the other side of the country.” To that, Cohen said she answered, “OK, you’re right. I’ll get up.”
It wasn’t just offense they worked on together. Her dad also emphasized defense.
“I remember him teaching defensive principles like, ‘Slide, slide, slide, slide,’” Cohen said. “That’s one memory we have together.”
When playing defense, you never want your feet to cross each other. You also never want to stand up out of your stance because that way your opponent can drive right past you. All those defensive slides have paid off, to the approval of Lady Bear fans.
Cohen has guarded plenty of perimeter players, like Texas’ Ariel Atkins and Oklahoma’s Maddie Manning. She’s also guarded front court warriors inside like the Sooners’ Vionise Pierre-Louis. When Cohen was asked to go inside and defend Pierre-Louis in Norman back in January, the senior didn’t blink. She answered Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey’s challenge head-on and shut down the Oklahoma forward in the paint.
“She had one of the best games of her career,” Mulkey said after the win inside the Lloyd Noble Center. “She guarded Vionise Pierre-Louis when Kalani (Brown) was on the bench and (Lauren) Cox kept playing behind and wasn’t moving her feet. Dekeiya took it upon herself and guarded her inside. And then she went outside and guarded there. She also had a couple putbacks for us and nailed wide-open shots.”
While Cohen’s defensive ability comes from practicing with her dad, her versatility was born out of playing against the boys. At 6-foot-1, the small forward can play outside on the perimeter and hit the midrange jump shot when left open, but she can also post up a smaller defender inside and exploit the mismatch.
Growing up, Cohen says she played a lot outside against her brothers and their friends. There was no taking it easy on Dekeiya, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Those contests developed a fearlessness inside her.
“My best friend was a boy, so we played outside a lot,” Cohen said. “I grew up playing with a bunch of guys. I still wouldn’t be afraid to shoot or dribble.”
When she wasn’t playing against the guys, she was emulating her favorite players she saw on TV, like Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi. Even some Tina Thompson.
“Yes!” Cohen answered, when asked if she still freaked out a little when she saw Thompson on the Texas bench as the Longhorns’ associate head coach. “It’s crazy to see her in person. She’s definitely taller than I thought the first time I saw her. She was definitely monumental.”
While her dad was her first coach growing up, her mom was her coach in middle school. And it took Cohen no time at all to notice the similarities between her mother and Mulkey.
“They’re both blunt. They both don’t sugar-coat things,” Cohen said with a grin. “They’re not afraid to yell at you. They definitely hold you to a high standard and aren’t afraid to tell you, like, ‘Oh, c’mon make that layup. You’re better than that.’”
Trailblazer. That’s how Cohen describes her high school career, one in which she averaged 23.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 4.9 steals and 2.0 blocks per game for four years at West Ashley High School. She was named the South Carolina Player of the Year as a junior.
“No one before me went big-time Division I,” Cohen said. “I feel like Baylor’s the biggest school anyone went straight out of high school to. I was the first person to do that, first person to get my jersey retired. I think that’s pretty cool. We went pretty far, to lower state, and that never happened. We were ranked No. 1 my senior year. I think it definitely set the bar high for West Ashley basketball.”
Cohen’s ability garnered plenty of suitors during her recruiting process – Louisville, Miami, Georgia Tech and current defending national champs South Carolina. But she recalls the moment as “surreal” when she found out Baylor was interested.
“It was really exciting,” Cohen said. “I’m not from Texas, and the fact that they found me all the way out in South Carolina was pretty cool. I knew there was a big chance I’d go there.”
When Cohen came to Waco on her official visit, Odyssey Sims was her host. And Cohen had marveled at Sims’ ability an innumerable amount of times when she watched her on TV. But there was something else that solidified Cohen’s choice to spend the next four years of her life at Baylor.
“They uphold women’s basketball,” Cohen said. “A lot of colleges don’t do that. A lot of colleges, it’s like second to football, to men’s basketball. Here, women’s basketball means a lot to the university. Coach Mulkey’s a great coach. It’d be cool to play for her, is what I thought.
“Also the school’s a good academic school, a Christian school. I know that I could use some more knowledge about Christ. There’s never too much to learn.”
Cohen thinks she was a mere 30 points away from reaching the 2,000-point mark in her career at West Ashley High School. While the point totals are a bit hazy – she definitely would have surpassed the 2,000-point mark with ease as she average 23.3 points per game over her career – she’ll never forget the moment she tore her ACL in her right knee.
It was December her senior year. They were playing one of their regular opponents. Cohen went up for a layup, planted her right foot hard and her knee buckled. She knew in the moment she tore her ACL.
“It was devastating,” Cohen said. “I was looking forward to my senior year. And it was weird just jumping from senior year to college not being able to play my senior season.”
Cohen wasn’t medically cleared until a few weeks before her freshman season at Baylor. Throughout summer workouts and preseason workouts, all she could do was watch. And she didn’t want to redshirt.
“It was definitely hard,” Cohen said. “Alex (Olson), the trainer, helped me. When you’re recovering, you start doing drills to get in shape. Everything else I had to do on my own like going to shoot and not being scared when I go out there. I had to think, ‘I’ve been here. I’ve watched how they’ve played. I’ve watched how things work on the court. Now it’s time for me to go out there and apply it.’ I didn’t really have much time to get my feet wet.”
While the physical recovery process was difficult, getting over the injury mentally was a different story. Cohen said what helped her cope was knowing that God has a plan.
“Obviously it must be part of his plan even though I don’t know what it is,” Cohen said. “The fact that I could come back and play, I used that as motivation. Some people get injuries they can never come back from.”
Cohen played her first game for the Lady Bears in the 2014-15 season opener against Oral Roberts. In 12 minutes, she scored six points and pulled down five rebounds.
“I was really excited,” Cohen said. “My family was happy for me. It’s a long journey to get back from an ACL injury. Just being able to get on the court, run up and down the floor and play collegiate basketball was fun.”
Cohen’s family brought the old Dekeiya out of her. She recalls conversations she had with her family over the offseason where they told her that she wasn’t playing like herself; she wasn’t dominating on the court like they knew she could.
“Everyone who knew me in high school or had seen me play before knew there was more I could bring to the team,” Cohen said. “I took that and listened to it. In times when I got discouraged, I just remembered that I know I can go out there and do it. This year I got the opportunity, and I’m trying to take advantage of it.”
With only 10 players on the roster, Cohen knew she was really needed this season. There was no one else she had to wait behind.
“I knew ultimately I’d be rewarded for waiting just because I’m not the type of person to start something and not finish it,” Cohen said. “I watched the people in front of me like Alexis Prince. She’s a great player. I could take what she did and then try to learn from it.”
Her minutes per game have gone from 9.9 as a freshman, 7.7 as a sophomore, 12.7 as a junior to 27.3 this season. And with more than double the minutes, Cohen has quadrupled her career scoring average entering this season. The senior is averaging 12 points per game and shooting her best percentage ever at Baylor at 52.6 percent.
“It doesn’t surprise me about her performance,” junior Kalani Brown said. “Dekeiya’s just doing what she’s supposed to be doing. Offensive rebounding, being physical, that’s her strong suit. I think she’s upgraded it since last year. She’s a better rebounder, better shooter. Now she’s a senior so she’s a great leader too. She’s added more to her game.”
Mulkey has said time and time again this season that you always know what you’re going to get out of Cohen. It’s a constant on which you can rely. She has scored in every game she’s played and piled up double-digit points in 17 contests.
The biggest rebounds of this season came a week ago in Austin. Texas was battling back late in the fourth quarter against Baylor, and Cohen came up with some monster board.
After the game, Mulkey said, ““That’s probably one of the most impressive things I’ll think about this game is Dekeiya Cohen is the offensive rebounds she got when the game was tight.”
And who knows, whether it was Cohen’s game at Texas where she had the big rebounds in addition to a career-high 24 points or another Lady Bear game this season, there may have been a little girl watching her every move on television, only to go outside and try to emulate Cohen’s performance on the court.
Just like Cohen used to do.