Texas native finishes college career in great fashion

Joe Murphy

In two years at Kent State, DeGrate has helped her team to 38 wins

Melissa DeGrate was honored during a senior night ceremony Tuesday before the Flashes’ game against Buffalo. DeGrate then scored a career-high 30 points.

Credit: Joe Murphy

Melissa DeGrate has come from the Lone Star State to become the lone star senior on the Kent State women’s basketball team. The senior guard has earned five Mid-American Conference Player of the Week awards in her final college basketball season. Her 16.1 points and 5.7 rebounds a game both rank second on the team behind junior forward Lindsay Shearer. Awards, winning and a scorer’s mentality are nothing new for the Amarillo native. But at the level she’s winning them is.

Before DeGrate moved to the college ranks, she made a name for herself at Amarillo High School. It was there she was named to the All-Region first team once and the All-District first team three times in her four years. DeGrate capped off her high school experience with the Amarillo Globe News Player of the Year award.

In 2001, it came time for DeGrate to graduate and move to the next level.

For her, that meant a trip to Levelland, Texas, the home of South Plains junior college.

“I didn’t have the grades after high school to get into a Division I school,” she said. “So I was going to go Prop 48 at Corpus Christi. I decided that wasn’t going to be right for me. I knew I could get better. (South Plains) had a great history. We win a lot there. We have a great coach. It was a good opportunity to improve my skills.”

At South Plains, DeGrate had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes. They were big footsteps to fill as Swoopes became the first person in South Plains basketball history to have her jersey retired.

But DeGrate knew she couldn’t be Swoopes; she had to concentrate on being herself. South Plains coach Lyndon Hardin was also aware of this.

“It’s hard to compare any player to Sheryl Swoopes,” he said. “Melissa was her own individual. She did a lot of things that helped us win.”

And South Plains did win. In DeGrate’s two seasons as a Lady Texan, South Plains won a combined 64 games. In her sophomore year, DeGrate posted a solid 20.3 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. She led the team in scoring in 21 of her 27 games and added two more awards to her collection: All-Region first-team and All-Conference first team.

“Melissa was a team player,” Hardin said. “She was very concerned about us winning. She never tried to pad her own stats. She was just a very coachable lady.”

When DeGrate’s two years at South Plains were up, it was time for her to take the next step. With the next step came the next decision: Where to go to college?

In a list of schools including Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Oregon State and Fresno State, DeGrate traded in her dream of playing at a Big 12 school for the reality of playing in the MAC.

Hardin first saw in Kent State a program where DeGrate would have an opportunity to play competitive basketball and would pick up life skills to use in the future. When DeGrate visited the campus, she concurred.

“Coach Hardin thought that I could be me here,” DeGrate said. “I had never heard of Kent State when they were recruiting me. But he thought I could come in and play here and help the team win. He wanted me to go to a school I could be comfortable at. I don’t have any regrets about coming here. You learn not only basketball stuff, but you learn stuff that you need to work on in real life.”

It didn’t take DeGrate long to learn some of her life skills. The offensive-minded DeGrate learned three games into her junior season that she wasn’t in Texas anymore as she struggled mightily from the floor.

“My first three games of the season, I was 0-for-11 from the field,” she said. “I had no confidence in my ability to play. I thought I was going to come in here and be All-Conference. I didn’t think no one could hold me. I was told my game comes from defense first, and the offense will come automatically. That’s where I had to start. I needed to think defensive. At first, I was thinking offensive.”

DeGrate’s style of play then switched to defense first, offense second. While this was a shift for DeGrate, Hardin said it’s the way he saw her play for two years.

“She scored a lot of her points off of defensive steals,” he said. “She kind of had a knack for where the ball was going to be coming off the rim. She was very quick-handed. She made a living off of that.”

DeGrate ended last season second on the team in steals. She and teammate Malika Willoughby tortured opponents on the perimeter by season’s end.

When she was named the team’s Most Improved Player last year, it was a only a sign of things to come. She averaged 9.8 points per game and was an important part of a team that finished the season third in the conference. But this year, she has dominated.

No. 30 is once again second on the team in steals this season, averaging 2.67 steals per game, good for fourth overall in the MAC. Many of DeGrate’s 16.1 points per game have come off defensive steals.

But don’t be mistaken — DeGrate can spot up and hit the outside shot. With six 3-pointers in a 87-33 win over Buffalo last Tuesday, DeGrate set the single-season record for 3’s with 61. Her sixth 3-pointer of the night put her one ahead of Kathy Carroll’s record set back in 1990-91.

With only a tournament standing between the only senior on the team and the end of a college basketball career, DeGrate’s coaches and teammates are well aware that her absence next season cannot easily be replaced.

“Without her, we would have 10 less wins this season,” Kent State coach Bob Lindsay said. “She challenges players every day just with her effort level. It’s hard to lose a player like Melissa. She gives you court leadership, rebounding, athleticism. These kids who come in as freshman just aren’t at the same experience level.”

DeGrate hopes she will be missed. But while she won’t be wearing No. 30 next season, she will still be at Kent State taking classes, and she promises to be a spectator in the crowd. She will also share a house with La’kia Stewart, Tiffany LaFleur and Kerrie James. She expects next year’s team to share in some of the same success as this year’s team, and she hopes to be an encouragement to her roommates.

“I hope they will miss me,” she said. “I hope they have a great team. I hope that someone takes my spot. I hope they have someone come up and do the same things I’m doing — getting steals and loose balls. That’s what gets a team going.

“It’ll be interesting watching them come home, saying, ‘I’m tired.’ But I’ll be there to cheer them up. I know they’ll listen to me.”

Contact women’s basketball reporter Joe Murphy at [email protected].