WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. (WIVB) — Amari DeBerry was sitting on the Williamsville South bench Wednesday evening, awaiting the introductions for the Class A sectional final, when assistant coach Mike Del Valle leaned over and said, “Top right.”
“Huh?” DeBerry said.
“Top right,” Del Valle repeated. “You know what that means?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. Del Valle was gesturing to the top of the grandstand across the court at Buffalo State, where the country’s most celebrated women’s college basketball coach was standing.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had come to watch his prize recruit play for the Billies in the sectional title game. UConn had won the AAC Tournament and a 32nd consecutive NCAA tourney bid two nights earlier (the tourney has since been canceled). There had been rumors that he might show up, but DeBerry wasn’t aware that he had made the trip to Buffalo.
It’s not as if Geno is a regular. A short time earlier, I had walked to the top of the stands to say hello. Auriemma can’t speak publicly about DeBerry, a 6-5 junior forward who is committed to UConn but hasn’t signed her letter of intent. Perhaps he had some thoughts on Buffalo?
“There’s not a lot to tell,” he said. “I’ve been here twice in 35 years.”
Auriemma hasn’t recruited a Buffalo girl since Texlin Quinney, who starred at Sacred Heart and Seton Hall and played briefly in the WNBA. That was nearly 30 years ago, which tells you how rare it’s been for this area to send a girls hoop star to a major college.
DeBerry, who committed to UConn in November, was worth his trouble. She is the best girls player this area has produced in more than a quarter century. Two years from now, she’ll be performing at the highest levels of the sport, for a coach who has won a record 11 national championships.
Geno came to see DeBerry, who was named one of the top five players in the 2021 class by ESPN. He got an extra treat, a chance to see a resilient, well-coached Williamsville South team beat Hamburg, 64-51, for the overall sectional title and a meeting with Pittsford Mendon of Section V in the Far West Regional.
(The NYSPHSAA announced Thursday afternoon that it had postponed remaining championships in basketball, bowling and ice hockey. The Will South-Mendon game had been slated for Saturday.)
DeBerry’s gifts were evident from the outset. She clearly has the size and skills to play at an elite level. In the first three minutes, she nailed a three-pointer, blocked a shot, and passed adeptly out of a double team to set up a Billies teammate for a basket.
But DeBerry, who can be overeager on defense, picked up her fourth foul early in the second half, forcing her teammates to play without her for about eight minutes. No matter. They didn’t lose any of their nine-point lead. She admitted she had been nervous, playing in front of her legendary future coach.
“Yeah, you should be should be a little bit nervous for every game, especially a game like this,” she said. “It’s a big deal. But as long as you have butterflies in your stomach and you’re all moving the right way, the same way, it’s all good.”
South coach Kristen Dolan played at Canisius College for Sister Maria Pares from 1987-91. She’s been around local basketball for nearly four decades and is well aware of how rare a prospect she has in DeBerry. She couldn’t think of any high school player in memory quite like her.
“Oh, it’s so exciting,” Dolan said. “To have her be the amazing teammate that she is. She loves these girls and they love her. She’s a team player. She’s there and she’s all in. This city and her team and her school mean a lot to her.”
She’s certainly in with the Dolans, the de facto first family of Williamsville basketball. Hannah is a senior guard and co-captain with DeBerry. Gretchen, a freshman guard, is one of the top players of her age in the nation and has the look of a future Division I player.
Graham Dolan, the eldest of the clan, starred at Will South and played at Babson. Greg was the Allen Wilson player of the year in Western New York in 2018 and was a valued reserve this year as a freshman at Cornell, where he’s a teammate of Jimmy Boeheim.
“She’s got a great friendship with the girls,” Kristen Dolan said. “But you know what’s really cool? She’s there at the house and it’s like Graham and Greg having another sister. She’s my third daughter. They’re all super, super close.”
DeBerry’s mother, Veronica Nowacki, was all-Western New York at Newfane High in 1989 and played for Sal Buscaglia at Hilbert. DeBerry said she wears No. 42 because her mom and aunt wore the number. So did her college hero when she was younger, Brittney Griener of Baylor.
“I was actually a big Baylor fan until the sixth or seventh grade,” DeBerry said. “Then I found out who UConn was and from there, that’s where I wanted to go.”
She could have gone anywhere she wanted. Georgia Tech offered a scholarship when she was in the seventh grade. Last summer, she played for the Philadelphia Belles in the Elite Youth Basketball League, where she competed against the best 17-and-under players in America. She also played with the Belles at the junior nationals in Washington, D.C.
This is rarefied air for a Western New York girl, but DeBerry seemed well grounded. She understands how unusual it is for a local female to be mentioned in the same breath with Auriemma and the hoop royalty who played for him at UConn.
“Thank you,” she said (yes, she’s polite, too). “I have a lot of people telling me that and I’m very honored, very grateful for everything.”
Dolan came up as high school player when there was no WNBA, no UConn dynasty, and few role models for aspiring young female players. DeBerry is someone they can look up to, evidence that anything is possible.
“Yeah, I’d like to think that,” DeBerry said. “I have a bunch of little cousins who are starting to play basketball. I’ve talked to a couple of younger girls who get together at women’s sports things. So it’s a great feeling to know you have people looking up to you, just another motivator.”
DeBerry has become close with Breanna Stewart, the Syracuse native who starred at UConn and is now with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. Stewart is a sponsor of the Philly Belles.
“I keep in contact with her and have questions about certain things, because she’s been through it all,” DeBerry said. “She’s a great resource to have, too.”
Not surprisingly, she has dreams of one day joining her in the WNBA one day, too. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ll keep playing as long as I can.”
The man standing top right in the arena Wednesday night will be thrilled to see her play for four long years. Auriemma didn’t have to say a thing. His presence said it all.