Kenisha Bell’s brothers and sisters tell their friends that their point guard sister is big-time now. They are her biggest fans — a supportive and fun fan club. Of 16.
“They brag about me a lot,” Bell said with a smile. “I just hope they follow my lead and stay out of trouble.”
Trouble was all around Bell and her big family when she was growing up on Chicago’s South Side, and safety was the motivation for Kenisha’s mother, Aishia, to move with her four children to Minnesota a decade ago. The decision to split the blended family apart was difficult, but better days were ahead.
Kenisha, the Gophers’ top scorer and playmaker, was named to the All-Big Ten first team this week, and several of her 16 siblings have gone to college and played sports as well. Kenisha, a redshirt junior, is on her way to graduating with a communications degree.
Before that big life moment, however, comes at least one big basketball moment for Bell: the Big Ten tournament begins Friday for the fourth-seeded Gophers (22-7) with a game at 1:30 p.m. against No. 5 seed Iowa (24-6). A strong showing this weekend in Indianapolis will earn the team its first trip to the NCAA tournament in three years.
“It’s easy to get in trouble in Chicago,” Bell said. “That’s why my mom wanted to move away from there, because of the neighborhood we were staying in. It wasn’t really safe. There were a lot of incidents people getting killed by accident. My dad was supportive for her bringing us out there. He felt like it was the best, too.”
Brian Townsend first noticed his daughter had big-time basketball potential when she was in grade school in Chicago. Kenisha could hold her own battling her older brothers and their buddies, and she dominated girls her age.
Some of the nifty ball-handling moves, acrobatic layups and zip passes Bell made at age 12 had spectators like her dad sitting in the crowd saying, “Are you serious?”
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Townsend said. “I have other kids who played basketball, but seeing her do that stuff was like ‘wow.’ ”
Fans in Williams Arena’s seats said that themselves many times this winter.
The flashy 5-9 Bell led the Gophers with 19.6 points per game, tied for first in the Big Ten with 6.6 assists per game and led the conference with 2.8 steals per game. Bell also was named to the all-conference defensive team Monday.
Bell is arguably the fastest player from end-to-end in the Big Ten. She can score in a hurry — four times this season she hit for 30 or more points — and she’s a playmaker, with 13 games of eight assists or more.
Bell made one basket in a 10-point loss at Rutgers on Jan. 13 that dimmed the Gophers’ postseason hopes. In the ensuing 10 final regular season games, Bell scored in double figures in each while averaging 7.1 assists. That stretch put the team on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble, according to ESPN’s projection, and gave everyone in maroon and gold a six-week reminder why they love having Bell back in Minnesota.
After she led Bloomington Kennedy to a Class 4A runner-up finish in 2014, Bell went to Marquette to be near one of her brothers in college. Townsend had moved the rest of the family out of the rougher area Bell was raised in, so she got to spend more time with them in Illinois as well.
But after a year, Bell’s heart told her the right place for her was back in the Twin Cities, where she has always felt supported in life and hoops.
“I left everything behind,” Aishia Bell said, “but I wanted my kids to do something better.”
She raised four kids in Minnesota and still managed to go back to college to earn her bachelor’s degree in human services. While her mother worked hard at home, Bell said several high school coaches and trainers in Minnesota helped her develop on and off the court, including coaches from North Tartan’s AAU program.
“I have a lot of support system here and coaches who believed in me,” Bell said. “Even when I didn’t really believe in myself, they got me to the point where I would be ready for this kind of environment.”
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings envisioned Bell taking over the lead guard spot after all-time leading scorer, Rachel Banham, graduated in 2016. The Gophers were just 15-16 in Bell’s first season, but Bell has watched the team blossom behind her and senior guard Carlie Wagner into a contender.
“The first step is getting in,” Stollings said about the NCAA tournament. “I think we’re a tough matchup because we have four perimeter people who can shoot the ball so well. We have perimeter speed and we rebound the ball well.”
Wagner, also a first-team All-Big Ten player, and conference freshman of the year Destiny Pitts share with Bell the pressure of leading the team. No one player feels a great burden like Banham did, and they want this balance to lead to an NCAA tournament invitation.
Bell’s basketball life already has had four stages, from Chicago, to Bloomington, to Milwaukee to the U. Now she wants in on the game’s biggest stage.
“We’ve got a lot of experience and we grew as a team,” Bell said. “It would mean a lot to make it.”