Kennedy Nicholas: From battling the courts to battling for boards

Junior forward discusses her unique journey to Sac State


Shaun Holkko

Sac State junior forward Kennedy Nicholas poses for a portrait at the Nest. Nicholas is currently ranked seventh in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (4.6) and thirteenth in total rebounds per game (11.5).

When Sacramento State junior forward Kennedy Nicholas became a ninth grader, all she wanted to do was to play for the high school basketball team 一 until she wasn’t allowed.

Nicholas stands at six foot three inches, one of the tallest players in the Big Sky Conference. She grew up in Kirkland, Washington, the daughter of two former collegiate basketball players.

Her mom Jan and maternal grandfather both played college basketball at Oregon State while her dad Tim played at Western Washington.

Photo courtesy of Corvallis Gazette Times
Jan Nicholas, mother of Kennedy, grabs a rebound during her time at Oregon State in the early 1980s.

Nicholas was born to be a basketball player.

RELATED: Nicholas dominates to lead Hornets to second straight win

“I started playing basketball when I was three because both my parents were collegiate players and they both coached for a long time,” Nicholas said. “A lot of my life revolved around playing different sports but in sixth grade, I decided to play basketball [exclusively].”

She also played soccer, volleyball and softball before deciding to stick to one sport.

Growing up in Washington, Nicholas went to one of three high schools in the state that did not have a traditional high school system. She attended junior high school from seventh grade to ninth as the high school she was planning to attend started at the sophomore level.

The school system’s set up introduced a flaw in the system for young athletes 一 an unwanted gap year. So when Nicholas was an eighth grader, her dad took the matter into his own hands.

“My dad filed a lawsuit against the state and had me speak in the court of law because ninth graders weren’t allowed to play for the high school,” Nicholas said. “So when I was in middle school, I was battling the state judicial system to try and play my freshman year of high school basketball.”

The case got taken from the school board to the state and then Kennedy eventually earned the ability to play high school basketball as a freshman in middle school.

We just had to move practice so we could get our mom’s to drive us.”

— Kennedy Nicholas

“We just had to move practice so we could get our mom’s to drive us,” Nicholas said.

In 2016, Nicholas moved more than 750 miles away from home to play basketball at Sac State. Upon arrival, she was paired with fellow freshman, guard Tiara Scott. The duo were roommates for their first two years in Sacramento.

Nicholas and Scott went through growing pains building their relationship early on but the chemistry they developed is now reflected on the court.

“[Our relationship] definitely [has] evolved a lot because you get tired of your roommate when you have to see them everyday,” Scott said. “But now our connection on the court is unlike any other. I know where she’s gonna be, she knows where I’m gonna be.”

The pair each had to wait their time and pay their dues as underclassmen because they joined a relatively older team as freshmen.

Nicholas got her opportunity in her sophomore season when senior forward Kyhonta Doughty went down with a knee injury.

“I was thrown into the ringer during conference [play] last year,” Nicholas said. “I had a lot of no-pressure experience. They didn’t ever expect me to have more than six points and eight rebounds. That lack of pressure really helped my mental space to just go out there and do my best.”

Nicholas used her extended playing time in her sophomore season to get her feet wet and to really experience what college basketball is like.

The experience Nicholas got last season is what gave her confidence coming into this season as one of the main leaders and focal points of the offense.

“Going into this year I had an idea of what it was going to take,” Nicholas said. “I have really long arms so I decided that my own goal for the season was to rebound the ball. [Head] coach Bunky [Harkleroad] puts a lot of emphasis on offensive rebounding.

“Everything with me starts with the rebounding and whatever comes from that is just a natural progression.”

Nicholas has come out and made her mark this season rebounding, not only in the Big Sky Conference, but in the nation.

She currently averages 11.5 rebounds (4.6 offensive) per game. Her focus on rebounding has paid off so far this season as she ranks in the top fifteen nationally.

Nicholas is currently ranked seventh in the nation in offensive rebounds per game and thirteenth in total rebounds per game. The junior forward also has nearly doubled her points per game from a season ago vaulting from 7.5 points per game to 14.6.

“I think I’ve gained a lot of confidence,” Nicholas said. “I’ve relaxed a lot and through that comes the ability for me to play better and play smarter. A lot of my improvement comes from the mental side.”

Nicholas also currently ranks in the top ten of six Big Sky categories. She ranks ninth in scoring (14.6 ppg), first in rebounding (11.5 rpg), fourth in field goal percentage (.502), second in blocked shots (2), first in offensive rebounding (4.6) and second in defensive rebounding per game (6.9).

Nicholas was recognized for her play on Jan. 22 as she was named Big Sky Women’s Basketball Player of the Week. She earned the honor after leading her team to two wins and averaging 18 points, 15 rebounds (7.5 offensive) and 3.5 blocks per game.

Shaun Holkko – The State Hornet

“I think Kennedy is definitely athletic compared to other post players in our league,” Harkleroad said. “She’s good with both hands, technically left-handed but shoots the ball [with her] right so that’s a great gift for a post player.

“She is a good example of what a Big Sky player should be.”

Over seven years after fighting for the rights of ninth graders to play for the high school basketball team in Washington, Nicholas is still battling, but in a different way.

Nicholas now battles among the nations best rebounders while being one of the prominent leaders on her team. She said her ultimate goal for her team is to win the Big Sky tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament, just like her mom did.

“Right now is a special time in our season, we’re right in the grind of it,” Nicholas said. “My main focus is to lead by example with energy level and hard work.”

The Hornets (10-13, 6-9 Big Sky) currently have five regular season games left before beginning the Big Sky Conference tournament in Boise, Idaho on Mar. 11.