Small College Sports

Cedar Rapids Jefferson grad Dennis McKinney enjoying breakthrough season with Mount Mercy men's basketball

In first year as a starter, redshirt sophomore leads Mustangs (8-5) in scoring and rebounding

Mount Mercy's Dennis McKinney (5) leaps to hte basket as Mike Evans (15) along with Walkdorf's Brian Smith (5), Shay Motter (4) and Melvin Martin (20) look on during the first half of a game at Hennessey Recreation Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, December 17, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Mount Mercy's Dennis McKinney (5) leaps to hte basket as Mike Evans (15) along with Walkdorf's Brian Smith (5), Shay Motter (4) and Melvin Martin (20) look on during the first half of a game at Hennessey Recreation Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, December 17, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — No matter who you ask on the Mount Mercy men’s basketball team, the same word is used to describe Dennis McKinney.

Worker.

The redshirt sophomore has turned a diligent summer of toil into a breakthrough season.

“It is just something I probably never expected at the beginning of the season,” McKinney said. “Just because I am just a redshirt sophomore and it was just a lot of things that would have to go my way in order for me to have a great start like this. But my coach and my teammates put me in a position to do the things that I do, so it just worked out for me.”

McKinney leads Mount Mercy (8-5, 3-4 Heart of America) in both scoring (17.3 points per game) and rebounding (5.5) and is tied for second on the team with 31 made 3-pointers. The long-distance shooting success — he is making 3-pointers at a 45-percent clip — has been particularly eye-opening for the 6-foot-4 post player since he attempted just one 3-pointer as a Cedar Rapids Jefferson senior, and one more last year at Mount Mercy.

He missed both.

“It’s a product of the work, it absolutely is,” fourth-year Mount Mercy Coach Aaron Jennings said. “He shot one 3 last year and I can remember it. It was in the Graceland game and it wasn’t the right shot. It was a mistake and we told him that. He has always had good form, but it just wasn’t part of his game. He just put in the work. He was in here late night, on Sundays, in the morning. He has always been a kid that just loved to be in the gym.”

Before his junior year of high school, McKinney left an increasingly-dangerous Chicago neighborhood and relocated to Cedar Rapids with his aunt. He played for the J-Hawks’ junior-varsity team as a junior, then led the varsity squad in rebounding (6.4 per game) and was second in scoring (11.6) as a senior.

“Coming out of high school, he was a worker,” Jennings said. “He was an offensive rebounder, kind of a banger inside, somebody that was just going to work and work and work, play hard, but he didn’t necessarily have the basketball dribbling skill, the shooting skill. He was just going to try to outwork you.”

McKinney redshirted during the 2016-17 Mount Mercy season, a year in which the Mustangs had nine seniors, won 21 games and reached the NAIA national tournament.

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“I just learned as much as I could from them,” McKinney said. “They just basically told me to stay in the gym and put in as much work as I can, whenever I can. So I took their advice and my coach’s advice and it all came together for me.”

McKinney played in 29 games last season for Mount Mercy, including one start. This season, he is the lone non-senior in a starting lineup that includes point guard Antwain Strong, former Solon prep Emilio Villagrana and forwards Mychael Brawner-Henley and Mike Evans.

The Mustangs entered the winter break with six wins in their last eight games. They do not play again until conference play resumes on Jan. 2. McKinney will afford himself a couple of days off, but then it is back to the gym.

“I feel like we haven’t even hit where we could play our best basketball,” McKinney said. “I feel like when that adds up together, we’ll probably be one of the most dangerous teams in the country.”

l Comments: douglas.miles@thegazette.com

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