WILMINGTON — As the bus turned the corner on to Cedar Street, members of the St. Elizabeth High School girls basketball team got into position and held their signs. The door opened, and the first player to step off walked into her own personal fan club.
Ber’Nyah Mayo wasn’t three steps off the bus when her former St. Elizabeth High School teammate Rory Ciszkowski wrapped her in a big hug. More were waiting for the young lady everyone knows as “Fatty,” who was in town with the University of Massachusetts women’s basketball team for the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament a few miles away at the Chase Fieldhouse.
The Minutewomen held a shootaround at the St. E Center, where Mayo spent three seasons terrorizing opponents as a member of the Vikings. She scored more than 1,000 points and was a two-time first-team all-state selection, and her Vikings were among the four teams still alive in the state tournament before it was canceled at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of her teammates at UMass, Stefanie Kulesza, also hails from Wilmington. Kulesza played Catholic Youth Ministry ball for St. Ann’s in Wilmington before going on to the Conrad Schools of Science. She warned up with the Minutewomen, but she was unavailable for the tournament with a broken hand.
Mayo has been an important piece for coach Tory Verdi and Massachusetts over the past two seasons. She played in every game as a freshman, averaging 9 points a game while playing more than 33 minutes a night. This season, she entered the starting lineup for a veteran team that is currently 26-6. She has playe more than 35 minutes in each one, and she is scoring 9.9 points and grabbing 5 rebounds per game. She leads the team in steals with 74. UMass finished third in the Atlantic 10 this season, and the Minutewomen are headed to the NCAA Tournament after winning the conference tournament with a 62-56 victory over the top seed, Dayton on March 6. They will find out their opponent and destination on Selection Sunday, March 13.
During the three games in Wilmington, Mayo played 119 of 120 minutes. She averaged nearly 11 points per game, each of which was played in front of a large number of family members in burgundy “Welcome home, Fatty” t-shirts, carrying signs and filling the Chase Fieldhouse with cheers. The support was definitely noticed by the Minutewomen and their head coach, Tory Verdi.
Mayo is part of a strong core at Massachusetts that includes conference player of the year Sam Breen. Being around such a talented group of basketball players has been a positive for her.
“They get me better every day,” Mayo said. “Being around other players of the year in their state, you compete every day. You have no choice but to get better.”
Although Mayo has stepped seamlessly into a starting role with the Minutewomen, she said the move from high school to college was not as easy as it seemed.
“Transitioning during a COVID year was extremely hard for me, but thanks to my teammates and my coaching staff I had, they made it easier for me. It’s now my home away from home, obviously, and to have all of these people around me is truly a blessing. And then to be able to come home, and have both homes together at once, is honestly a blessing,” she said.
Verdi said both of his First Staters are hard workers who have become part of the UMass family. He said Massachusetts was the only Division I program to offer Mayo a scholarship, a decision that has paid off handsomely.
“We knew, one, that she was ultra-competitive,” Verdi said after the win over Fordham. “Two, we knew that we were going to have to work on her skill set and refine it a little bit. But the first day that she stepped on the court, she took over. She earned her starting spot.
“She’s just steady. There’s never too-high or too-low moments for her. No matter what I say, or how much I yell at her, nothing gets her rattled. She’s just poised. It’s great to see her in her home environment doing the things that she did.”
Like former Padua Academy star Michelle Kozicki, who played in the tournament with La Salle, Mayo was happy for some home cooking. Mayo said her family has been able to see her play in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., two of the closer cities with Atlantic 10 teams, and they have occasionally made the 290-mile trip to Amherst, Mass.
While being around old friends could be distracting, Mayo said this was a business trip, and the Minutewomen came first. Their goal, after all, was to play in the NCAA Tournament. She was not worried about keeping her attention on the task at hand.
“It hasn’t really been hard (to focus) honestly because of my mindset and how locked in I am all year round. It’s kind of like another home game for me, and I have to get the job done,” she said.
The Minutewomen practiced at Conrad on March 3, where Kulesza worked her magic for five years, and Mayo couldn’t wait until her turn to show off her old stomping grounds.
“A bunch of great memories,” she said. “Being in high school and then missing high school, I wish we could get it all back, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be here and show my teammates where it all happened before I went to UMass.”
All photos by Mike Lang.