Division I transfer starts hot for GVSU hoops

Point guard Brionna Barnett a 'fireball' for Laker women

By Steven Garber | 12/4/14 12:20am

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GVSU junior guard Brionna Barnett

by GVL / Kevin Sielaff / The Lanthorn

“Things aren’t always going to go your way in life and in the game,” said Brionna Barnett, the starting point guard for the Grand Valley State women’s basketball team.

Barnett posted the best game of her collegiate career Saturday against No. 5 Gannon University, dropping 20 points for the first time since high school.

But points aren’t as important to her as retaining her love for the game – a love that was lost in the months and years prior to transferring from Wisconsin – Green Bay, where she played for two seasons under a coach and program she knew she didn’t fit.

The Elkhart Memorial High School graduate was set to play under Kevin Borseth before he jumped ship to Illinois, leaving Barnett’s contract to be voided.

The uncertainty of Barnett’s basketball future was an unsettling feeling. She didn’t know if she was going to play another game after being released.

“I didn’t know where I was going to go or where I’d end up,” Barnett said.

It took just hours for word of Barnett’s availability to get out. It prompted a call from GVSU women’s assistant basketball coach, Phil Sayers, who had establish a rapport with Barnett as he was recruiting her in high school while he was an assistant at Western Michigan.

A few weeks after her release, she made a visit to GVSU, where she spoke with the coaches, took campus tours with Sayers and worked out with GVSU players Kayla Dawson and Meryl Cripe. During the recruiting process, she was sold on making the jump to Allendale to help a team win, Sayers said.

“There’s no comparison,” Barnett said. “As soon as I visited here, I knew right away this is where I wanted to be.”

Next, she called GVSU head coach Janel Burgess and asked if there was still interest. Barnett said she could feel the excitement of Burgess, who she had just met a few weeks prior, through the phone.

“It made me feel better, knowing she’s happy and excited for me to be there as much as I am,” Barnett said.

Life as a Division I athlete is similar to that of a workhorse: constantly laboring, never appreciated or encouraged.

Spending holidays lifting or practicing was one reason Barnett knew it wasn’t right for her there.

“I’m a big family person, so when I had to go six hours from home it was tough, especially when you’re not enjoying basketball,” she said.

A huge determinant in her coming to Allendale to play ball was a bigger appreciation for a player’s personal life.

“Life isn’t all about basketball," she said. "There are other parts: family and school. You just aren’t a basketball player."

Barnett has been given a second chance to chase her dream – to play professional basketball in Europe. After being uncertain of her basketball future, she’s not taking any chances. Making the leap to GVSU was the first step toward accomplishing that goal. Playing well for the Lakers is the next.

“[In practice] she’s a little fireball,” said assistant coach Dani Crandall. “She’s a really good learner, always asking questions and fixing the little things.”

Barnett is taking every opportunity available to get better, help her squad and be a champion at GVSU.

She may tread quietly, but her game is starting to speak for itself. Barnett ended Saturday’s game with 23 points, six assists and five rebounds after scoring 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the second half.

“She is very quiet at times,” Sayers said. “But she’s so coachable and has a strong desire to improve on a daily basis. Anything we give her to improve on she focuses on it until she has improved.”

In only her second start, Barnett nearly doubled her offensive production – although her impressive .500 shooting percentage (7-14) behind the arc does not top GVSU’s team of talented shooters.

Another former transfer, senior Kat LaPrairie, who has only fired off eight shots inside the arc across the three games, leads GVSU in 3-point shooting percentage with a burning clip of 72.7 percent (16-22).

Barnett, however, is the team leader in assists (12) and is averaging just over 16 points per game – second behind LaPrairie.

Barnett’s control of Burgess’ fast-tempo offense makes her a key ball-handler and a complement to the team, thanks to her ability to drive and score or dish to open shooters on the floor.

“[Barnett] wants the ball…on crucial possessions,” Sayers said. “She wants to make the big play while she is extremely unselfish [and] always looking for ways to get the ball to her teammates.”

“She’s not an emotional player, but you know she wants to learn. If you really watch the kid, she’s all out all the time and that’s what we really love about her,” Crandall said.

Strong, competitive teams need a leader who stands out – a leader to set the level of intensity of a champion – and the Lakers may have found just that.

“There’s not one thing that the opponent can take away that’s going to limit her. Her being a versatile player really helps her find her spot on this team,” Crandall said.

Barnett developed her level of intense persistence and focus in basketball from her big, loving family (she has nine siblings), and those that supported her constantly.

Her travel team coaches – Ken “Tennessee” Hunt and Kendrick Jordan (who Barnett called “Dad”) – were the two most influential people in her basketball career.

“They both deserve so much credit for where I am now,” Barnett said. “Tennessee knew what I had to do to be the best I could be and my dad always reminded me of that whenever I seemed to slip up and forget.”

Jordan is, was and always has been the encourager, keeping his daughter focused. Barnett reminisced on him always being there to grab her rebounds in the driveway in the rain, sleet or snow.

Hunt was the tough one, who knew where Barnett needed to make changes and when to voice criticism.

“I remember [Hunt] always being harder on me than anyone else," Barnett said. "Even now when I go home he takes me through a workout. I have so much love and respect for him…because we both know all those practices and staying late have paid off.

“All the hard work that my dad taught me [and] not hanging out with friends have paid off. Mainly I just want to make my parents proud. ‘Til this day he’s pushing me to be the best I can…to never be satisfied.”

Isn’t that a true characteristic of a champion? To never settle or be content with where you’re at?

“I think our biggest competitor is ourselves,” Barnett said. “Sometimes coach has to tell us to slow down or focus more… just relax and play.”

It could be a dangerous formula once Barnett fully understands her new system. She has faced and played with some of the best, including current WNBA-ers, which pressed Jordan to say “the game has really slowed down for her now.”

When not fully focused on the game, the junior spends her time sleeping, shopping, watching movies and listening to music. Her favorite pre-game music to warm up to since junior high has been 2Pac.

Her favorite activities include anything being around the ones she loves: her biological family (whom she is able to see more often now living closer to home) and her new one – her basketball family.

“They’ve really taken me in," she said. "They can count on me for whatever.

“[The coaches] didn’t have to take any interest in me and they gave me another chance. The next time I go to complain about something I just remember how good I have it. I’m just going to make the most of it – for them and for my teammates.”

sgarber@lanthorn.com

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