(WIVB) – Back in February of her senior year in high school, Summer Hemphill hadn’t decided where she would play basketball in college. She was the Catholic league player of the year and had led Cardinal O’Hara to another Monsignor Martin league title.
Still, there were questions about her game translating to the next level. UB head coach Felisha Legette-Jack had heard the doubts from her assistant coaches. But sometimes, a head coach needs to see for herself.
“I went to see her when was playing in Rochester,” Legette-Jack recalled on Friday. “I said, ‘I’m going to take one more look at this kid.’ She was something that day. Her ability matched my eyes. I said, ‘This is exactly what we need.’”
Legette-Jack told Hemphill’s coach she was interested. That night, she called to say she was accepting the Bulls’ offer.
“We got a steal,” Legette-Jack said. “An absolute steal.”
History confirms that the Buffalo native was “grossly” under-recruited, to use her coach’s word. Hemphill, a 6-1 forward, became a starter and made all-MAC freshman her first season at UB.
Hemphill was a vital part of the UB women’s historic run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2018. As a junior, she averaged 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, then made the all-tournament team as the Bulls won the MAC title (she had 16 points and 21 rebounds in the title game) and won a game in the NCAA tourney.
Last year, as a senior, Hemphill was poised to take her game to the next level. She was mentioned on some preseason national award lists and was the preseason Player of the Year in the Big 4. Then, in October, she suffered a knee injury that put her out for the season.
“I was torn apart when I first got hurt,” Hemphill said Friday. “Especially knowing how far I’d come in the past few years. The summer going into my senior season, I really upped my game. For a freak accident to happen, it put a stop in my road and made me slow down and focus on myself and get myself together.”
It was tough, particularly when she had to watch from the bench during some of the most difficult stretches of Legette-Jack’s eight seasons in Buffalo. The Bulls lost six in a row late in the year, the longest losing spell since 2012, before turning it around late.
Watching UB struggle at times, with dynamic freshman Dyaisha Fair trying to carry them on offense, you had to wonder how far that team might have gone with their best player, Hemphill, on the floor.
“Yeah, it was hard,” Hemphill said, “but I was able to use my voice with them. That helped. We were extremely young last year. They needed to get that experience under their belts.
“Of course, everybody wants to win,” she said, “but sometimes you have to take some losses in order to understand how to win. And hopefully those lessons they learned last year added to their game this year, and we can become something better.”
The Bulls’ season ended in a MAC tourney loss in March, two days before the pandemic shut down sports in America. Suddenly, colleges were going remote. Players were isolated. For Hemphill, it made the rehabilitation process a bit more bearable. Since she hadn’t played at all, she qualified for an extra year without a medical redshirt.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t have access to a gym. I wasn’t able to do anything on the court, anyway. There were a lot of body weight things I had to focus on. So that was a big help.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Americans have grown accustomed to waiting, to doing without the normal routines of life. That’s what rehabbing an injury requires for an elite athlete, an acceptance of new limitations and the virtues of patience on a slow, grueling climb back to normal.
“I was already four months ahead in not playing,” Hemphill said. “I was kind of used to it. Not being in the gym and around basketball was kind of weird, though. I was always in the gym or at a court or something. It was weird not to have that access.”
You can imagine how it felt this week when the UB women returned to practice — albeit, while adhering to the Covid protocols — to begin preparations for the 2020-21 season. The players were thrilled to get back to the place Legette-Jack calls their “sanctuary”.
“Everybody was extremely happy,” said Hemphill, who turned 22 in August. “It was a big deal for us, just to have everybody out there and enjoying the moment, noticing that we’ve been taking something dear to us for granted. Everybody is grateful. The energy is up there.”
Legette-Jack will never be accused of taking anything for granted. She said she has the same passion in her 32nd year of coaching as she had in her first. The woman could get emotional about a layup line.
She can’t say how close Hemphill is to being back at 100 percent. Hemphill said she’s working toward that. But it’s hard with knee injuries.
“I don’t have a prediction,” Legette-Jack said. “She’s running. Our goal is to have her ready for our season opener (Nov. 29). Right now, she’s jogging a little bit, backpedaling, things like that. They say she’s ahead of schedule. Her mental is so strong right now. She really gets … it.”
Hemphill says she grew up a lot over the last year. She had the support of her teammates, who lifted her during the difficult times.
“They kept my spirits really high,” she said. “When you’re going through something that detrimental, it’s hard. I understand people who have had gruesome injuries in their careers now. I understand their perspective on the game and their own personal lives.
“The team and the coaching staff and the UB community had my back throughout the whole time. They’re all there for me. Any little progress I make, they’re cheerleaders for me. I’m thankful for the family I’ve gained while being here at UB.”
Her real family is there for her, too. Hemphill, the daughter of Willie Hemphill and Tina Kettle, is one of eight children. She has four sisters (Justina, Tacara, Tahawna and Teawna) and three brothers (Willie, Justin and Taylon). Justin, who starred at Cardinal O’Hara, is a freshman on the Daemen squad under Mike MacDonald.
Hemphill’s family are fixtures at UB games. Summer and her mother are members of the Seneca Nation. She is the first enrolled Seneca to play women’s hoops for UB on a full scholarship. The Seneca Nation has honored her at a special Tribal council session and with a proclamation day in her honor.
“I’m Seneca through my mother,” Hemphill said. “Being a Seneca woman means a lot to me, being a Native American and knowing the history of Native Americans in America and being part of a group.
“I try to use my platform to become something. Knowing I have so much support from the Seneca Nation means the world to me. They support me in everything I do, and I don’t know where I would be without their support.”
As Native American and African-American, Hemphill is sensitive to racial discrimination and was moved by the social unrest that raged through the country this past summer.
“It’s an uncomfortable topic in the country right now,” she said. “But it’s something we have to get comfortable discussing. Nobody should be treated differently because of their skin color or income or where they live. I just don’t think that’s fair.
“As humans, we’ve come a long way, but we have a lot more ways to go. I feel we can’t do anything about it unless we have these conversations that people are uncomfortable with. That’s the only way that we can surpass this and become better as a country.”
Hemphill wants to play basketball professionally after college. She speaks often with former UB star Cierra Dillard, who is now playing pro ball in Finland.
“My main goal now is to get 100 percent healthy, and of course I would like to pursue a professional basketball career. After that, I would definitely consider becoming a police officer. I’ve always wanted to be one. Knowing what’s going on today with police officers, I would like to think that if I became one, I could help promote change.”
Her coach has no trouble envisioning her star forward as a good cop.
“Oh gosh, yes,” Legette-Jack said. “She’s so serious. Nothing fazes this kid. She’s not afraid of anything. Very focused, very conscientious of her surroundings. That’s a police officer. That’s what she wants to do.”
In the meantime, Hemphill will patrol the lane for the Bulls, helping them try to reach the NCAAs for the fourth time in six years — three in a row with her in the lineup. Legette-Jack said Hemphill has been working on her three-point shot. If she becomes proficient from three, she could be player of the year in the MAC.
“She can jump almost 30 inches off the ground, and she’s quick as a deer,” Legette-Jack said. “The one thing she didn’t have is confidence in herself. That’s why she was still out there. I feel it was all fate, her and me connecting. How could she have been out there that late?”
Hemphill said her academics and test scores might have scared some schools off when she was in high school. As a UB junior, she sat out games in the fall semester for academic reasons. But she straightened things out and is now finishing up her degree in sociology.
“That was hard,” she said, “but I was able to get back out there for the second semester and we ended up winning the MAC championship, so everything that starts out bad usually comes out a rainbow in the end.”