Kentucky’s leading scorer isn’t at defending state champion Butler, nor is she at powerhouse Male.
She’s at Louisville’s St. Francis, a school of approximately 150 students and known more for its academics than its athletics, where junior guard Alexis Nelson leads all scorers with a state-best 33.3 points per game.
St. Francis is 12-11 this season with most of its wins coming against other small schools, but Nelson has held her own against larger schools, too.
“She can score against anybody and she can play against anyone,” St. Francis coach Dean Zangari said.
Basketball is in Nelson’s blood.
Her older sister, Latasha Peterson, starred for Manual in high school and went on to play for the University of Kentucky. She’s now the coach of the Seneca’s girls basketball team. Her cousin Mosezell Peterson starred for Ballard and went on to play for the University of Wisconsin. The two were named Kentucky All-Stars in 1994 and played against the Indiana All-Stars in the annual postseason series. Mosezell Peterson went on to play for the University of Wisconsin.
Despite the family pedigree on the basketball court, Nelson didn’t start playing until seventh grade. It wasn’t long before Nelson picked up the finer points of the game, and her competitive drive has helped turn her into one of the state’s top scorer.
“I’ve always enjoyed (basketball) but I never really practiced, so I didn’t know I could go somewhere far with it,” Nelson said. “When I started competing in the high school games against tough competitors and I performed well, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a gift and I need to take advantage of it and use it to its full potential.’”
Zangari discovered Nelson in 2014 after a former player, Kate Jones, mentioned to him in one of the team’s first practices that Nelson had some talent. After one scrimmage in a jamboree, Zangari said he knew he had a special player on his hands.
“We played these preseason games that were with running clocks, and she scored 15 points in the equivalent of half a game,” recalled Zangari. “Right there I knew I had somebody special.”
Nelson went on to lead St. Francis in scoring her freshman year, averaging 29.2 points per game. A year later, Nelson made history, breaking former University of Louisville women’s basketball player Monique Reed’s Jefferson County scoring record with a 58-point performance against Piarist. Nelson also holds the state record for most free throws attempted in a game with 42 attempts against Brown during her freshman season. She hit 21 of them and scored 45 points.
Nelson’s sophomore season was cut short by a concussion, but she picked up where she left off as a junior.
So far this season, she has eclipsed the 40-point mark on four occasions and scored a season-high 46 points against Kentucky School for the Deaf. Last fall, Nelson competed at Rick Bolus’ High-Performance girls basketball camp, and by the end Nelson was voted the top underclassman out of all the participants.
Nelson is also mature beyond her years. Her brother Darryl has Downs Syndrome and the family volunteers in the community to spread awareness at Downs Syndrome advocacy events. In addition, Nelson has taken on leadership positions, serving as president of the Black Student Association at school and captain of the basketball team.
“With my brother in the house, it made me more mature,” Nelson said. “I had to help out my mom. It’s a good thing. Most people say, ‘Oh, I missed out on my childhood,’ but I feel like everything happens for a reason, and I think this helped grow me as a person.”
Nelson’s mother, Gail, has been a role model for Nelson. Gail Nelson raised four children as a single mother while being deeply involved in St. Stephen Church. She instilled the determination that has helped her children succeed both in and out of the classroom.
“My mother says if you start something you’re going to finish it,” Nelson’s sister Latasha said. “She never forced it on anyone, but you’re going to finish it. It’s natural athleticism and when you put that with hard work and practice, you know, you end up with players such as Alexis, and she’s so humble. It’s more like, ‘Hey, I’m going to give it 110 percent and I don’t have to brag because I gave it my all.’”
Aside from helping her develop her game this season, Zangari said one of his goals was to help give Nelson more exposure. At the moment she’s been lightly recruited, partially due to the level of opposition she plays each game as well as Nelson’s absence from the AAU basketball trail. Zangari said the plan is to get Nelson on an AAU basketball team so she can showcase her talent to a wider audience, and he’s called in former Manual girls basketball head coach Stacey Pendleton, currently at The Brown School, for help.
Nelson, however, is taking a realistic view on a future career as a college basketball or even professional basketball player.
“Yes (I’ll try to play basketball), but I really just want to focus on academics,” said Nelson, who said she wants to pursue a career as a pediatrician. “Women’s basketball does not make nearly as much money as men’s basketball, so I have to think about that. And I have to think about injuries. I want to have a backup in whatever I study so if something was to occur in college, I’ll be able to succeed once I get out or graduate.”