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Feb. 15, 2012
Karen Jenkins Gray quickly took a perception common to young collegiate student-athletes, and it turned out to be a very good omen.
"I realized after I got to college that I wasn't the only superstar on the team," she said. "I understood that I had to work as hard as the next player."
Jenkins Gray, then known as Karen Ann Jenkins, was part of an ensemble cast that led Clemson to its greatest achievements to that point. They were "Seinfeld" a few years early with one notable exception. That was "a show about nothing." The Tigers had some substance to them.
Jenkins Gray, who counts herself among the program's Top 10 scorers and rebounders more than two decades after playing her final minute, helped the Tigers to the school's first NCAA Tournament victory, a triumph over SEC power Georgia that put Clemson in the Sweet 16 in her senior year of 1989. Generally speaking, she was a leader in a unit that indicated the Tigers were intent on being far more than participants in that fledgling entity known as ACC basketball.
In conjunction with center Louise Greenwood, swing player Michelle Bryant and defensive stopper Ramona O'Neal at the point, Jenkins' play at power forward gave Clemson a complete team and a collective identity. The university had been home to Barbara Kennedy, who was and still is one of the most revered players in the league's history. But the Tigers didn't break through on the national stage until Jim Davis, a genial fellow from the sport's cradle, Tennessee, became head coach in 1987.
Davis convinced his players they didn't need to concede anything. While the Tigers sought their first NCAA Final Four, they made their mark in a conference with three flagship programs, Maryland, NC State and Virginia, all of which were ahead of the national curve in sponsoring and promoting women's sports.
Jenkins' specialty was judicious shot selection. She was among the ACC's most reliable players in and around the paint, leading the ACC in field-goal percentage (.556) in her freshman season of 1985-86. She's still third in Tiger history in accuracy from the floor. She replicated her regular-season success in the conference tournament, in which she went 38-for-71 (.535) and averaged 14.7 points a game in six career contests.
That included an 18-point performance in a 1988 victory over Duke, one of the games that signaled imminent team improvement. That year, the 21-9 Tigers won more games than they had in the previous two seasons combined.
Jenkins and four other seniors started and guided the Tigers to the program's landmark postseason victory, a comfortable decision against the Bulldogs in 1989.
Having been a major part of a team turnaround, Jenkins now seeks to help individuals make positive changes in their daily lives. She is a social worker for the Greenville (S.C.) County Department of Social Services, and she coached high school basketball from 2002-10.
She is married to Thomas Bryant Gray and resides in Greenville.