When Kansas State’s Jalana Childs fouled out with 10 seconds remaining in the game, the Bramlage Coliseum crowd celebrated her performance with a standing ovation.
It was a day Childs has never forgotten.
Four years ago, the Orlando, Fla., native introduced herself to the Wildcats fans with a double-double in her first-career start, as she scored 14 points and hauled down 16 rebounds in K-State’s 79-71 win over Oklahoma State.
It was a big day for the freshman, just as Saturday will be when Childs and four others celebrate senior night during the Wildcats’ regular-season finale against Texas Tech at 6:30 p.m.
Childs had earned a spot in the starting lineup on that day against the Cowgirls when Shalee Lehning had to miss the game with mononucleosis. It was also the “Pink Zone” game, a cause dear to Childs’ heart because her godmother — who helped raise her — had died from breast cancer.
It was also on that day we all came to see the emotional side of the 6-foot-2 forward, something that’s become a key part of Childs’ game during the past four years.
With the game coming to a close, Childs went up to block Oklahoma State’s Andrea Riley and knocked the Cowgirls’ point guard to the floor. As she walked to the bench having registered her fifth foul, the response from the crowd left her in tears. In a tear-filled exchange after the game, Childs said she played as a tribute to her All-American senior point guard.
“I remember hugging Coach (Deb) Patterson and then I hugged Shalee, and that’s when the tears came out,” Childs said. “It was the breast cancer game… that was part of it and then being able to play for Shalee was awesome. Those four seniors that year were just incredible, and then being able to step in when Shalee couldn’t, felt so good.”
But for the longest time that week, Childs wasn’t even sure if she’d start. Nobody told her she was starting the game until teammate Kari Kincaid told her to take a spot on the bench for the introductions.
“I would sub in with the first group during the week, so it was like, ‘maybe I’m starting,’ but nobody would ever tell me,” she said this week. “We were lining up and getting ready for the National Anthem and I was just looking up to see if my number was up there, and then Kari just said, ‘go sit down.’
“Nobody said anything. But I think you’re supposed to put two and two together, but I didn’t want to assume. I was just a freshman.”
Patterson said that first start for Childs was an early example of how good she could be when her head isn’t part of the game at hand — something Childs has battled throughout her four years with the Wildcats.
“That was an amazing freedom-type game,” she said. “At the point in your life, it’s like an open window of opportunity. There’s no pressure and there’s no expectations. It’s just, ‘I’m going to out there, this is my chance, and I feel the emotion of the moment.’ And quite frankly, I think that’s when Jalana is at her best.
“When she’s been a player that really has had any responsibility on her shoulders, or when she didn’t realize the responsibility was there, was when she’s played her best basketball.”
And Childs has played some good basketball for the Wildcats. The senior is 24th in school history with 1,152 points scored. This season Childs is averaging a career-best 13.8 points per game, which ranks 10th in the Big 12. She’s scored in double figures 22 times this season, including seven games with at least 20 points.
“I think Jalana was a work-in-progress and I think it was neat to see her evolution physically, emotionally and her skills develop,” Patterson said. “I always felt that she had the capacity to be a really good offensive player. And ultimately, she established that at its peak during her junior season. I think that’s when we saw the very best of what Jalana has to offer offensively.
“She just did a good job over the course of her four years in becoming something and working real hard along those lines to invest and to improve.”
Childs’ junior season was one of extreme highs and low lows, as she probably enjoyed the most productive segment of her career at one point, only to get injured late in the season and essentially be a non-factor in the postseason.
Childs had averaged more than 19 points per game during a nine-game span before suffering a pelvic stress fracture in the opening minute of the Wildcats’ game against Texas A&M on March 2. She averaged just 6.8 points per game in the five games following her hard fall.
“You think to her junior year at the end of the year, and she and Brittany (Chambers) were probably the best 1-2 combination in the Big 12,” Patterson said. “They were playing with this reckless abandon, a nothing-to-lose mentally.
“I think Jalana has taken this senior year a little more philosophically and probably brought more of her mind and her head into the game than is good for her.”
And while Childs has been effective this season, Patterson said she’s felt her star forward has dealt with lingering effects of that injury emotionally.
“I think that injury and a six- or seven-month period of time there after that really changed her game and mentality a great deal,” she said. “And because of that I think it’s been a process, and at times, a struggle in her senior year.”
It’s been an up and down season for Childs offensively. On some nights, she can’t be stopped. On others, she’s disappeared. Both outcomes have generated a flood of emotions for Childs.
“A lot of that comes with wins and losses,” she said. “And with wins, it can happen when you don’t score. It’s happened this season when I felt like I wasn’t really doing anything, like ‘this is awful. This is the worst senior year ever.’”
During a stretch in late January and early February, Childs failed to score in double figures in four out of six games. Three times Childs scored just four points, once scoring only two. But in two games mixed into the slump, she posted 22 points and 16 points.
“After talking with my teammates and my coaches, I knew I was trying, but my head was all messed up during that stretch,” she said. “I would let a bad first half affect me in the second half. I learned that I need to keep doing what I’m doing, keep trying to help my team and things will come to me.”
Sometimes, Childs’ emotions have been her worst enemy, and she knows that. She’s spent the last four years trying to corral those emotions for the best, like she did in her first-career start against Oklahoma State so long ago now.
“I don’t mind when she’s emotional,” Patterson said. “It’s when the emotions handcuff you that it’s extremely frustrating. I think, for whatever reason, this year that’s happened a lot, like she’s overthinking it. At that point, I would like to have operation when we do remove the brain so she can’t really think and just plays.”
But the emotional Childs is who she is, for better or for worse. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, whether it’s after a big play, a tough foul call, or in excitement after a big win and even in defeat. She’s never been one to hide what she’s feeling, one way or another — on or off the court. Childs will tell you like it is, and without too much prodding, you’ll know in a hurry what kind of mood she’s in on a given day — albeit she normally is smiling ear to ear.
“I don’t go out on the court with a certain mindset, other to play, but then certain versions of me just pop out,” Childs said. “Whatever the course of the game brings to me is how I react. That’s just the way I am.
“I think it’s good for a player to have emotions. But I think you have to be able to control it and I think I’ve learned how to do that.”
Early on, Patterson knew the kind of player she had in Childs.
“Jalana shows raw emotion, she’s quick to laugh, has an excellent personality, she’s very sincere,” Patterson said the day following Childs’ breakout game against Oklahoma State four years ago. “And if she feels sad, she’ll cry. If she’s happy, which she is most of the time, she’ll laugh. What I love is that she shares it with people.”
Childs shared it again last Saturday following the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Missouri. It was a game in which K-State fought for the lead, only to cough it up late and lose by five in OT to the worst team in the Big 12. Childs, who said that game was one of her lower moments at K-State, sat in the interview room, quiet and fighting back tears, unable to answer any questions.
“I’ve lost games before — even this year, we lost to Oklahoma and Iowa State, and lost to Missouri other seasons and it’s felt bad, just awful,” she said. “But Saturday, for some reason, I had post-traumatic stress about that game. It was for real, depression hit.
“We didn’t play great, but I just felt like… With 25 seconds left, somebody’s at the free throw line and I tasted victory. Just to have it stripped away, was devastating for me. I’ve never experienced something like that throughout my whole career here, nothing like last weekend.”
Childs is hoping her final start at Bramlage Coliseum ends the way her first start did, with tears of joy, as she plays in front of the home crowd for the last time.