The buzzer sounded at George Washington’s Smith Center, and the frustrated look on Jenna Burdette’s face remained unaltered as the senior guard beelined to her seat on the bench. She was about the only one unaffected by the fact that she had just hit a 35-foot shot to put Dayton ahead by 12 at the end of the third quarter.
“A lot of people said I didn’t show any emotion after that,” Burdette explained, attempting to excuse her lack of expression.
“It felt good leaving my hands, so I was just like ‘okay.’ And I was thinking about the last play that I had just messed up. That was what was on my mind.”
Even if the point guard’s recent record been spotless at the time of her shot, it’s not likely she would have graced more than a smile.
Burdette may be reserved, but she’s certainly not listless. But Burdette’s perfectionist response to her impressive shot illustrates how her rise to the leadership of Dayton’s women’s basketball team has grounded her nerves and focused her intently on her team’s aspirations of reaching its championship potential.
Humility is a lot easier when it’s ingrained in your roots. Burdette hails from Coolville, Ohio, in the far southeast corner of the state — a town whose population totals less than 500.
“It’s very small, obviously. I don’t see another house from my front door,” Burdette said. “But you go to school with the people that you go to kindergarten with all through high school.”
That communal mindset, Burdette thinks, also contributed to the athletic side of her life.
“That also made a difference, basketball wise,” she said. “They understand my schedule and they were just a support system other than my family. And they still come to my games today, and I think that’s really cool.”
Her father, John Burdette, in fact coached her in elementary school and high school, ultimately assisting her in the college decision process.
“I just made a list of 10 schools, and we kind of did a little number thing of geography and schooling and basketball,” John said. “And when it came down to it, Dayton was at the top of the list.” Naturally, the family factor played a pivotal role in her decision.
“One of the main ones was just my family being able to come,” Jenna said. “And I get excited for them to come see me play, and I think that helps me during the games.”
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Her unimpressed visage following her buzzer-beater says it all. Burdette has never been one for pomp. Dayton’s coaches knew that right away.
“Jenna’s recruiting process was a little different because she didn’t like the process,” coach Shauna Green recounted. Green served as the team’s recruiting coordinator from 2012-15, during which time Burdette committed and began her career at Dayton in the fall of 2014.
“We developed a pretty good relationship with her early. She wasn’t into talking to a lot of coaches. She was recruited by a lot, but she just didn’t want to take the time to do it. Some kids are like that. Some just don’t like the process. So that probably helped us. And she committed here early.”
Jenna’s father shed more light on the topic.
“She wasn’t really interested in a lot of colleges, it was overwhelming at the time,” John explained.
Jenna perhaps had the best intentions of all though: not giving other schools the time of day because Dayton was just the secret sauce needed to enhance her growth as a player and person.
“I think that’s what Jenna was looking for, was that tight-knit atmosphere and that family atmosphere. And that’s what she had only known,” Green said.
“And I couldn’t see her going to a different setting, to this huge school. I mean for her that wasn’t the right fit.”
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While choosing a school like Dayton has its obvious perks — geographic proximity, tight-knit culture and playing time — it also presents unforeseen challenges.
Burdette was thrust into the fire her freshman season, starting at point guard on a team with two would-be WNBA players (Ally Malott and Andrea Hoover). It was a tall order, but one that ultimately accelerated the growth of the then-timid freshman.
“That was … different. That was nerve-wracking,” Burdette hesitated, choosing her words intentionally. “But I got through it.”
Jim Jabir, the team’s head coach from 2003-16, had a goal in mind. The Flyers had entered the NCAA Tournament five years in a row, but five times were knocked out in the first weekend’s games. He preached, from the season’s onset until it happened, that Dayton would be going to the Sweet 16.
Whether or not Burdette understood before the season what she had committed of herself was moot. She was already along for the ride.
The Flyers in fact outdid themselves. The Sweet 16 wasn’t the end. UD ran all the way to the Elite Eight where they gave Connecticut, the nation’s top team, a shock by taking Huskies to halftime with the lead.
“Making the Elite Eight run and playing under Hoover and Ally was just a great experience, just to see how they carry themselves,” Burdette said.
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Starting at point guard as a freshman against perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of American sports (UConn women’s basketball) in the national quarterfinals is in the upper echelon of all-time nerve-rackers. But it’ll work wonders for future confidence.
“Freshman year definitely prepared me for basically everything,” she said.
Funnily enough, her father hardly knew the difference when the Flyers were pitted against the Huskies.
“I’m not a nervous person really. As they were going through the tournament I was watching ball games, and we were talking about who the next opponent would be, and who she’d be guarding,” John said.
But he did add the obvious.
“She grew up a lot her freshman year.”
Jenna took after her father in one sense from the beginning: he’s always enjoyed basketball and took charge in her athletic development early on. But, it took until after that first season in a Flyer uniform for Jenna to show likeness in another way.
“I don’t really get nervous anymore,” she said prior to Dayton’s senior night, when a large contingent of Coolville-ians would be in attendance.
It’s not just the nerves that Jenna has surmounted.
“I don’t have a problem talking anymore, so that’s a plus,” she said. “And on the court, I’m much more of [leader] vocally. I mean, it’s my job more as a point guard.”
Her teammates have taken notice.
“She has realized her role [that] she needs to step up and lead us, and tell us what to do if something is going on or something needs to be changed,” said junior guard Lauren Cannatelli, who has played alongside Burdette for three years now.
“We all respect her enough and believe in her and trust her that she’s going to know how to change things.”
While the respect from her teammates stems from her confidence and on-court ability, her performance also speaks for itself.
Burdette leads the team with 16.1 points per game, and shoots nearly 45.7 percent from three-point range — second in the Atlantic 10.
And that’s the difference between then and now. Burdette is no longer just a role player to gel a team with bigger stars. She’s a leader—someone who the players, coaches, fans and likely even opponents trust to get the job done.
“I just want the ball in my hands in [game] situations,” she said. “So I just don’t really feel the pressure as much.”
So, of course, she was as cool as ice after plunging a buzzer-beater into the aching hearts of George Washington on Feb. 11. Because after the journey she and the Flyers have trekked, a single shot was hardly a surprising feat.
Her roommate and fellow-senior guard JaVonna Layfield explained.
“Any time Jenna Burdette shoots the ball, I think it’s going in,” she said. And for anyone who’s watched Dayton since 2014, they know exactly what Layfield means.
“If she’s got the ball in her hands, something good is going to happen.”
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