If you blink, you might miss it.
It’s Jan. 3, and the Northwestern women’s basketball team is hosting Big Ten foe Nebraska. It’s about five minutes into the game and the Wildcats are rolling, as Nia Coffey has just hit a three-pointer to extend an early 10-2 lead. The Northwestern players calmly set back up on defense, feeling confident about their performance. Suddenly, like a flash of lightning, a purple-and-white thief has snatched the ball and is sprinting back towards the other side of the court. The ball is laid in for two points, making it 12-2, and the Nebraska players wonder: what just happened?
Ashley Deary happened.
The Wildcats’ junior point guard is used to this by now. She led the country with 128 steals this year, setting a Big Ten single-season record and winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Deary is the Energizer bunny on speed - she darts quickly and stealthily around the court, sacrifices her body by diving on the floor for loose balls and ventures places most opponents would consider breaking their personal bubble, getting uncomfortably up in everyone’s grill. She might even be the best defender in NU history, as she owns both the single-season and career steals record in just her third year.
“In my opinion, she’s the best defender in the country,” senior Maggie Lyon says. “I would not want to play against her. She can get a steal from anybody. She just has that mentality that nobody is going to get past her, that nobody can play against her, that she can D-up any player in the country and I’d put her against anybody.”
Defense has always been Deary’s focus. Growing up in Texas, she was coached by her dad, an all-conference wide receiver and running back as a football player at Texas State, and Ray Mickens, a NFL cornerback for 10 years. Mickens, a guy who made his living off stopping opponents on the biggest stage, had a huge impact on the young point guard.
“[Mickens] always stressed defense,” Deary said. “Our defense would always create our offense, we were always defensively sound and we would press full court all the time. I was taught at a young age that defense is a really important part of the game and that offense wins games but defense wins championships.”
It takes a special kind of player to commit as relentlessly as Deary does on the defensive side of the ball. Above all, it takes heart, which Deary has plenty of. NU’s junior point guard is listed at just 5-foot-4, but her height has never been an issue - her coaches simply wouldn’t allow it to be.
“[My coaches] taught me how to play with heart, which is really big to me...” Deary said. “I used to look at [my height] as a bad thing, but now I look at it as a blessing. Not many people are my size and have had the success that I’ve had. [My coaches] never have [focused on it]. They said you’re probably going to be short, so go ahead and play like you’re 10 feet.”
But defense and heart can only take you so far. To compete at a high level in college, Deary knew she had to become a complete player.
In her time at NU, she has done just that. While still excelling on defense, Deary’s point, assist and rebound averages have all increased since her freshman year. Just look at some of her statlines from this season: 28 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and four steals against Indiana; 15 points, eight assists, eight steals and six rebounds in the Nebraska game; 13 points, 10 steals, seven assists and four rebounds versus Eastern Washington.
Head coach Joe McKeown could not be happier with the all-around improvement of his point guard.
“[She] is one of the best point guards in college basketball, and I’m saying that objectively after 30-something years in our game,” McKeown said. “She just does everything. And here’s what she does best – whatever she needs to do for us to win. She doesn’t have to score, she’ll get it done defensively sometimes, she’ll get the ball to the right people at the right time, and she’ll take out the other team’s best player.”
Deary might not have the presence or starpower of the preseason All-Big Ten selection Coffey. She might not have the sharpshooting ability of the veteran Lyon. She probably doesn’t even have the scoring prowess of fellow Texan Christen Inman.
But she doesn’t need to. Deary has been able to take a little bit of each of those talents and combine it with her defensive excellence, transforming into a steady-faced leader with a do-it-all mindset as point guard of the ‘Cats.
“A lot of it has been being able to be comfortable out there on the floor,” Deary said. “The game has slowed down a lot for me from a point guard’s perspective... Once I got comfortable, I felt like I was really able to be myself, play basketball and not worry about the rest of it.”
After Deary’s 25-point, 12-assist and three steal performance in a 86-62 win over Western Michigan on Nov. 22, McKeown even compared his point guard to what he considers “maybe the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history.”
McKeown drew a parallel between Deary and Dawn Staley - a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2013 who was voted one of the top 15 players in WNBA history.
“[Dawn and I] were in Colorado with the USA teams and I said [Deary] needs to be Dawn Staley.” McKeown said. “I think Ashley has some of [Dawn] in her, and I think we are starting to see it. I have great respect for Dawn, she has won at every level, understands what it’s like to win championships and I think Ashley is starting to feel thatlittle.”
McKeown even had Staley give his junior point guard a phone call during the offseason. As far as advice goes, there is no better point guard to talk to in women’s basketball than Staley.
“[She] gave me a call and it was just point guard to point guard, giving me advice about going into my junior year and the responsibilities that are going to be given to me - some of them wanted, some of them unwanted,” Deary said. “It was really motivating to hear from her knowing that she has had a highly successful career, professionally as well as in college.”
McKeown’s notable comparison may be lofty, but his point is clear. With her excellence on defense, an increasingly do-it-all mindset and lots of heart, Deary will certainly be someone to watch as she tries to leave her legacy on Northwestern women’s basketball. Just make sure you don’t blink - you could miss it.