There were times, back in 2013 and ’14, where Khadijiah Cave felt overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness.
Homesickness is something a lot of college students experience. Cave had a serious case of the affliction after enrolling at Baylor in 2013.
She chose Baylor because of the “family environment” she sensed surrounding the program. But she underestimated just how much she would miss her actual family, her blood relatives. She longed for the comfort and familiarity of her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.
“It was so hard at first. I used to cry in my room a lot, used to call my family a lot,” Cave said. “After a while, I got used to it. I kept telling myself, this is not only for me but it’s more. I have to put myself in position to help my family. So I just stuck to it and prayed about it and talked to my family a lot.”
Four years later, as her time at Baylor winds to a close, the 6-foot-3 post gets wistful about having to leave. Waco has become her home away from home, and her Lady Bear teammates and coaches her second family.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Cave said. “I’m happy that I made it here and overcame a lot, but I’m sad that it’s so close to the end. I know that Baylor is more than me.”
As a girl, Cave was shy and introspective, preferring quiet art projects to noisy games in the neighborhood. Yet she enjoyed sports and the challenges they provided. She played softball and basketball in addition to running cross country and track.
It wasn’t until high school that she inherited the nickname by which everyone calls her now – KayKay.
“ It came from my Mom. She was calling me to leave practice in high school, and it just stuck,” Cave said. “Everybody started calling me, ‘KayKay.’ Nobody calls me Khadijiah. Teachers even call me KayKay. It’s pretty weird when they say Khadijiah. I look around like, ‘What? Who?’”
At Laney High School in her native Augusta, Cave made a name for herself as one of the top posts in the country. She guided Laney to three state semifinal appearances and a trip to the state championship game as a senior, producing a triple-double in the state semis with 31 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
Cave appreciated the family vibe that she sensed at Baylor, and chose the Lady Bears over her other top options South Carolina and Florida. But she also believed that Baylor coach Kim Mulkey would push her and challenge her — and she was right about that.
Nevertheless, there were times those first couple of years in Waco where Cave wondered if she was where she needed to be. She’d sob on the phone with her mother, wanting to come back home.
Mulkey said that homesickness is fairly common among underclassmen.
“A lot of the time they go to an assistant coach that they’re comfortable talking to, or probably crying with. That’s their job, that’s our job,” Mulkey said. “Homesickness is a good problem to have, because that means she’s left her comfort zone and those that love her. You’ve just got to help her understand that her feelings are no different than any other kid that comes here.”
On the court, Mulkey frequently demanded that Cave be more vocal. While the player sometimes still felt like the shy kid with a sketchbook, the coach saw more.
“She wouldn’t let it go,” Cave said. “She kept pushing me, kept talking to me, ‘I see the leader in you. I see the potential.’”
From her freshman year forward, Cave’s duties have remained constant. She acts as Baylor’s jumper cables. She watches from the bench for a few minutes, then leaps into the fray with loads of energy.
“KayKay is our X-factor,” sophomore post Kalani Brown said. “She comes in and grabs the offensive boards, she does all the dirty work. She’s just a hard worker all the way around. She’s a sparkplug, basically.”
Added senior guard Alexis Prince: “I feel like KayKay gives us the boost that we need on rebounding the ball. Even if she’s not scoring, she’s going to run the floor hard, make somebody guard her down there. She always comes in ready to play.”
Some players stew over a bench role. They can’t handle not being in the starting lineup, after years of being the best player on every team for which they ever played.
Cave, by contrast, prefers the reserve job. She said she likes to sit and watch the game for a while, evaluate what area the Lady Bears are lacking, then come in and try to supply that.
Cave averaged 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds as a freshman in 2013-14, then won the Big 12’s Sixth Man Award a year later when she put up 9.3 points and 4.6 boards in just over 16 minutes. She called that award “an amazing honor” and one of the highlights of her time at Baylor.
As a four-year veteran, Cave is willing and able to pick up whatever slack Baylor needs. She’s had eight double-figure scoring games this senior season, including a career-high 25 points in just 13 minutes against Winthrop where she went 11-of-12 from the floor.
On the season, Cave is averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting a career-best 63.6 percent.
Better yet, the quiet, lonely kid is no more. Those bouts of homesickness are long gone. Through the prodding of the coaching staff, Cave has developed into a locker room leader, someone who doesn’t have to be asked to speak up.
“They made me into the player I am today. I’m so thankful for that,” said Cave, who hopes to play basketball professionally, perhaps overseas, following college. “It just makes you push to places you never thought you’d reach before.
“Coach Mulkey taking me out of my comfort zone, making me a leader, making me talk more, making me more verbal, her being able to do that made me do that for the younger class, the freshmen and sophomores. … That’s why I’m the player and the leader I am today.”