Buzzer-beating leadership

Summer Hemphill’s success this season after a rocky start

summer-hemphil

Summer Hemphill found herself wide open in the closing seconds against Western Michigan. Senior guard Cierra Dillard launched a full-court pass and found Hemphill for the buzzer-beating layup, giving the Bulls a 61-59 win and a spot on ESPN’s top-10 plays.

Most importantly, Hemphill, a junior forward, found more than a highlight reel play –– she found redemption.

Hemphill was unable to uphold UB academic standards to compete and was forced to sit out the 2018 fall semester leaving the Bulls in a precarious situation. 

UB student athletes must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0 and need to pass at least six credit hours a semester. Student athletes placed on academic probation are no longer considered to be in “good academic standing” and are considered by UB and the NCAA to be ineligible for competition, according to the UB student-athlete handbook. UB athletics did not state the specific violation Hemphill committed.

Buffalo was without its second-best player for the first eight games of the season. The Bulls were without their leader. 

“She’s been in the gym everyday and she was so disappointed that she couldn't be out there to help us,” said head coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “That fire was in her body to help her get through those long nights and she knew that when she gets out there, she’s going to be ready.”

Hemphill played for the first time since the NCAA tournament in March against Dartmouth on Dec. 18. The nine months without competitive basketball is the longest stretch of her career.

All of her bottled-up energy came out as Hemphill dominated with 24 points and 14 rebounds.

“I was super happy, oh my God I was ecstatic to be out there with the team again,” Hemphill said. “You can probably tell by my stats that I was just happy to be out there with my sisters and run with them.”

Hemphill knew that she had to remain focused in order to even get to that point. She narrowed down her attention and worked to get better in her time off the court.

Hemphill had to sit idly by during games knowing she was physically able to play but not allowed to. It was frustrating for a woman who hates losing more than she loves winning.

The Bulls are in a tough transition year, with the loss of five key seniors from last year’s Sweet-16 squad. Buffalo has lots of young talent that needs time to develop, yet it can’t afford to not be competitive with players like Hemphill and Dillard.

The Bulls, luckily, have seen the emergence of Hemphill as a leader in the locker room. She was in a similar situation her senior year at Cardinal O’Hara. Hemphill was the star player and was leading a team of mostly underclassmen. Hemphill feels that’s when Legette-Jack saw her leadership for the first time.

Legette-Jack also saw a great work ethic and selflessness –– two qualities that remain the same today. Hemphill’s work ethic is more mature, according to Legette-Jack, and her mind is set in the right place.

Hemphill’s responsibilities have grown from being a “double-double machine” on the court. She’s guiding the team in the right direction to uphold the standards that other players have set for the program.

Hemphill, like many other freshmen, had to learn to come off the bench her first year. The star high school player’s role was reduced and she learned how to win as a team, rather than relying on herself.

The Bulls have seven freshmen this year — seven former star high school players that no longer see the court during games. 

“I just want to be there to let them know that there is four years in college, so your freshman year may not be your best,” Hemphill said. “You have to look forward and be able to maintain a positive mindset that you have three more years to look forward to. On top of that, you're playing with Cierra Dillard, you can learn a lot from her.”

The same confidence that she inspires her teammates with won’t help her take a three-point shot. Hemphill consistently knocks down shots from behind the arc during practice but “doesn’t have the guts” to take them on in a game. But Legette-Jack says she needs her to shoot it and has a “green light.”

Chemistry runs deep in the Bulls’ two stars, according to Dillard. The two are around each other a ton with team activities on top of being roommates. They play against the men’s team in the summer and are both Western New York natives.

“She knows me,” Dillard said. “She knows where I like the ball. I know where she likes it. She hates losing and I hate losing too. That's the kind of nature we are.”

It’s unknown if the Bulls would have been able to complete the 14-point comeback against Western Michigan without Hemphill’s leadership and chemistry with her teammates.

All it took was a simple head nod from Dillard to Hemphill to win the game. When the buzzer sounded and she was surrounded by teammates, Hemphill knew she was back. 

Nathaniel Mendelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at nathaniel.mendelson@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @NateMendelson