Sullivan: UB, Hemphill get another shot at No. 1 South Carolina

Jerry Sullivan

Summer Hemphill had six points and five steals in 23 minutes against South Carolina in the 2018 NCAA Tournament before fouling out. She gets another crack at the national powerhouse this weekend. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Summer Hemphill has thought a lot about the first South Carolina game. How could you ever forget? It was the biggest game of her college basketball career, a defining moment for a rising UB women’s program. The Sweet 16.

“Of course,” Hemphill said with a laugh on Tuesday. “I’m a hooper. You think about things like that.”

On March 24, 2018, the Bulls played against the defending NCAA champions in the Round of 16 in Albany. They were regional darlings, and big underdogs. But Felisha Legette-Jack’s team gave South Carolina all it wanted that day and trailed by only five points a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter.

That’s when Hemphill, a 6-1 sophomore forward and the team’s best interior player, picked up two quick fouls — dubious calls, in the minds of UB partisans — and was finished for the day. The Gamecocks took over inside and coasted to a 79-63 win that ended UB’s magical season at 29-6.

Hemphill acquitted herself well that day against 6-5 Aja Wilson, the national player of the year and, two years later, the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player.

“That Sweet 16 game, it was a good game, for sure,” Hemphill said. “Just the fact that we were able to compete and get to that stage shows what this basketball program has built and how we are able to compete with the top teams in the nation.”

At the time, Hemphill couldn’t have imagined that four years later, she’d get another shot at the Gamecocks. But on Saturday, she’ll get her chance when UB takes on South Carolina, the No. 1-ranked women’s team in the nation, in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney at Paradise Island in the Bahamas. She’s the only UB player left from that Sweet 16 squad.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s against the best team in the country or the Mount Mercy JVs. Hemphill is happy to be back for another season with the Bulls — healthy and determined to lead the UB women back to the NCAAs.

She has certainly had a lot of time to think about games from the past. Hemphill missed all of the 2019-20 season after suffering a knee injury just before the start of the season. As a junior, she averaged 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds and was named second-team all MAC. She was named the pre-season Big 4 player of the year heading into her “senior” season.

Summer Hemphill had a double-double in the season opener against Canisius with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

After a grueling, 14-month rehab, she came back last season and hurt her knee again, which limited her to seven games in 2020-21.

Hemphill took advantage of an NCAA rule that granted all winter sports athletes an extra season of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It took some serious soul-searching. She probably could have played professionally rather than come back to school. But she felt she had unfinished business.

“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “Definitely. I love basketball, so I couldn’t go out the way the last two years went.”

So, Summer decided to come back for a sixth season, technically a redshirt senior year. Returning to school wasn’t an easy decision for Hemphill, who was academically ineligible for the first month of the 2018-19 season.

“I think she questioned herself about going for her master’s,” said her mother, Tina Kettle. “She was encouraged to do it. Over the summer, we were painting in my house. She was like, ‘I think I’m going to do the master’s program.’”

Kettle said her daughter had to write an application for the master’s program in education. “She did it with her all,” she said, “and she got in there.”

Hemphill, who was the Catholic league’s player of the year as a senior at O’Hara in 2016, turned 23 in August. She says she’s matured quite a bit in college. Legette-Jack feels fortunate to have a player of Summer’s talent and character to help lead a team that’s expected to compete for a MAC title.

“She kind of developed late,” said Legette-Jack, who considered Hemphill a steal of a recruit. “She’s finally ready to lead. Some people get it in year one or two, year three or four. I think it took year six for her to have an entire season where she can actually lead.

Summer Hemphill entered the season ranked 6th in UB history in rebounds and blocked shots. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

“She’s doing a tremendous job of not being like me, or like Cierra (Dillard) or Steph (Reid). She’s been her authentic self. She’s Summer Hemphill. She’s the best version of herself,” Legette-Jack said.

“I definitely stepped out of my shell a lot,” Hemphill said. “I’ve been forced to use my voice a lot more, forced to do things that I would never do when I was a freshman or sophomore. That’s probably what she means when she says I’m growing into my authentic self.

“Looking back, I was really spoiled when I first got here,” she said, “because the upperclassmen were everything you could look for in leaders. I’m thankful I got the chance to play with them and grateful I can pass on the knowledge I learned from them to the younger kids on the team.”

It’s easier to lead when you’re a star. Legette-Jack was reluctant to declare Hemphill fully recovered a year ago, and events proved that the knee was still an issue. She says Hemphill’s knee is 100 percent now.

“For two years in a row, you didn’t have 100 percent Summer. You’ve got that now,” Legette-Jack said. “She’s as ready as she can be.”

Hemphill corrected her head coach. She said the knee is now 110 percent. Early last December, she came up lame after driving the length of the floor in a game at Purdue. It was back to rehab.

“It was upsetting,” she said. “I didn’t see it coming. It was a longer process the first time, so rehabbing again was a routine I was used to — kind of living with my trainer, day in and day out, going to see her in the training room at all hours of the day.

“Even now, I try to make sure I’m doing something on a daily basis in rehab to make sure I’m staying in the best shape possible for my knee.”

Her mother wondered if Hemphill would ever play again when she hurt the knee. Now she’s simply thrilled to have another year to watch Summer play at UB. Kettle and the family are fixtures at the games. Her son, Justin, is playing at Daemen College for Mike MacDonald.

Kettle is a Native American, a member of the Seneca Nation. Summer, one of eight children of Kettle and Willie Hemphill, is the first enrolled Seneca woman to earn a full hoop scholarship to UB. The Seneca Nation had honored her at a Tribal council day and proclaimed a day in her honor.

In high school, Summer Hemphill was a first-team all-WNY selection from Cardinal O’Hara. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

“I’m very, very proud of her,” said Kettle, who recently moved from Buffalo to Salamanca. “I went up to UB yesterday and said, ‘When are you leaving, because I want to give you a hug.”

The UB women leave for the Bahamas on Thursday. They’ll play top-ranked South Carolina on Saturday. They’ll face No. 9 Oregon or Oklahoma on Sunday, depending on the first day’s results. The third games, to decide placing, are on Monday.

The other teams in the eight-team field are second-ranked UConn, South Florida, Minnesota and Syracuse — which retired Legette-Jack’s No. 33 jersey in a ceremony at the Carrier Dome on Monday night.

Being chosen to participate in such a prestigious early-season event is a major achievement for UB, which has established itself as one of the top mid-major programs in the nation during Legette-Jack’s 10 years as head coach.

Two years ago, Legette-Jack met the director of the Paradise Island tournament in Colorado Springs, where she was an assistant for the U.S. women’s national team at tryouts for the Pan-American Games. She told the woman not to forget the mid-majors when selecting the field.

“She not only remembered the mid-majors, she chose us,” Legette-Jack said. “This is huge. It’s humbling and exciting. This is going to be tremendous for our program. It’s a win-win. Whether we win all the games or no games, we’re going to get the experience of a lifetime. I think it’ll help our kids to continue to get better.”

For Hemphill, it’ll be a chance to remind people how good she was from 2017-19, when she helped UB reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. She’s hoping to lead the Bulls to their fourth NCAA berth in seven years. After that, maybe there’s a professional job waiting for her.

“Of course, I want to play professional,” Hemphill said, “but I had to take a step back and reflect upon my process. Six years is a very long time. I was willing to be patient, and I’d say my patience has grown these past few years.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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