By Justin Grones (@JustinGrones)
GREEN BAY, Wis. (GreenBayPhoenix.com) - Following a historic 99-53 win against UIC on Feb. 2, the mood surrounding the Green Bay women's basketball team couldn't have been much brighter. The team had just won its 12th-straight game, had scored the most points in a game in more than seven years and would be playing four of the next five games at home.
But for freshman Brionna Barnett (Elkhart, Ind.), the win was overshadowed by news she had received just an hour prior to the game. Her grandfather-and biggest fan-had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.
"He was sick on and off for the past couple of years and it just got bad enough that he couldn't take it anymore. I was heartbroken, I felt like it wasn't real, and it still doesn't feel real," Barnett said.
As a true freshman, Barnett started her collegiate career off strong, tallying eight points in the first two games this season. From there she saw limited action until a 71-44 win against Wright State on Jan. 12, when she played 14 minutes and drained a three-gaining praise from her biggest fan.
"He made it to a couple games this year and never missed any of my sporting events," Barnett said. "It was awesome-he always told me 'good game' even if I didn't play or didn't play well and he was always there to cheer me on."
After the win against UIC, Barnett spent time in her home state of Indiana with her family. While going through one of the toughest experiences of her life, she cited her teammates and the Green Bay coaching staff for helping keep her spirits high.
"Brionna is a great player and always works extremely hard in practice," head coach Kevin Borseth said after a recent game. "To go through something like that is never easy for anyone, but she's done a great job of working through it and staying positive."
Barnett didn't appear in the win against UIC or at Loyola the following week, but returned to the court in the win against Milwaukee on Feb. 9, playing two minutes. Just five days later, she would have the best game to date of her collegiate career.
When she checked in against Cleveland State in the second half on Feb. 14, there was just over 14 minutes left on the clock and the Phoenix had a 46-27 lead. Thanks to an incredible day from the field, she helped turned what had started as a close game into a 37-point victory.
"It was one of those games where I knew my team had confidence in me," Barnett said. "They knew what was going on in my life, but to come out there that night and be able to have the game my teammates and I had was truly a blessing."
She struck first with a pull-up jumper in the lane before hitting three consecutive shots from behind the arc, helping Green Bay push its lead to more than 30 points. With less than three minutes to go, she completely faked out her defender on a crossover dribble and scored her final points of the night on an 18-footer. After entering the game with 11 career points and two triples on the year, the jump shot gave her a grand total of 13 points on 5-6 shooting with a 3-4 mark from long range that night.
To make her performance even more special Barnett carried the memory of her grandfather with her during her career outing, with the nickname she had given him, "PawPaw", and a heart written on the back of her shoe.
"Every day I wear a necklace he gave me, and I wanted to write his nickname on the back of my shoe because of how much he meant and how much he'll always mean to me," Barnett said. "I'm always thinking about him, and now every game I play is for him."
For Barnett, the rest of the season will be spent trying to continue to improve herself and her teammates as the Phoenix works towards a 15th-straight regular season Horizon League Championship. Whether it's in a game, in practice or in the classroom, she'll be using the memory of her biggest fan as motivation to be the best person she can be both on and off the court.
"My teammates have really helped me think of the good times I had with him and reminded me of how lucky I was to have him," Barnett said. "This team is like a family, and they've helped me realize that at the end of the day you shouldn't complain about the little things-because family is what's really important in life."
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