By Michelle R. Martinelli
Ashley Deary focuses her eyes on her opponent’s belly button — the best indicator of her next move. She patiently waits to see if the player she’s guarding will pass the ball or drive toward the basket.
Then, she sees it: a hesitation.
Her opponent shifts her belly button, and she’s about to make a play. But before she can, Deary lunges toward her and snatches the ball away, adding another steal to her stat column.
The junior point guard on the Northwestern women’s basketball team (13-7 overall, 2-6 Big Ten) does this in every game. Her concentration, patience and quick hands have her averaging 4.5 steals a game and leading the nation with 90 on the season. The next highest is 76.
“Everyone has a hitch before they make a move,” Deary said. “I’ll study the first quarter — what’s their hitch, what are they doing every time they bring the ball up? Then the second quarter, third quarter, that’s when I start going for steals.”
Deary’s patience is part of her maturation as a player, Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. She’s always been able to steal the ball — averaging 2.2 and 3.1 in her first two seasons, respectively. But this year, she’s been able to take her opponents out of the game, he said.
On defense, Deary dominates the action between half court and the three-point line, where many of her steals occur. Junior guard Christen Inman described it as “creating havoc up top.”
“She’s a thief, always has been, and that’s what she does,” McKeown said.
“She’s one of the best point guards in college basketball,” he added, “and I’m saying that objectively after 30-some years in our game. She just does everything.”
Her high basketball IQ is one of her greatest assets, McKeown said. It helps her read the court and players’ body language — a skill she’s polished since she started playing in her hometown of Flower Mound, Texas.
When her father, Vaughn Deary, gave her a basketball at age 6, he quickly noticed she could dribble with both hands, weave between cones and cross over. He immediately placed her in a league and coached her team but soon realized his daughter was too dominant for her age group. Other parents even thought they were cheating because she could hit the 7-foot rim on every shot, if not make it.
So he put Deary in a more advanced league and continued coaching her through high school.
“I played her against 5th graders, and she would steal their ball the same way she does now,” Vaughn said. “She’d make good passes, good decisions.”
“She can read [players],” Vaughn added. “It’s like chess to her. She’s always two and three moves ahead of the players on the court around her.”
By the time Deary was 10 years old, her father could tell she was going to be a point guard and could be a big time player in college. When her advantage became unfair even to her older opponents, Vaughn made a new rule exclusive to his daughter: she needed 10 assists before taking a shot.
Deary would dish out her 10 in the first few minutes, Vaughn said, and then just to spite him, she would rack them up and finish the game with 15 to 25 assists. Little did she know, it was all part of her father’s coaching plan, getting her to understand the angles of the court.
It paid off. Deary currently is tied for sixth in the nation with assists, averaging almost seven per game.
“I’m more of a pass-first point guard,” she said. “I’ll score if I have to, but I’m definitely looking to set my teammates up first.”
Despite Deary’s ample success, she has one characteristic often perceived as a disadvantage. At 5-foot-4, she stands at least 6 inches shorter than Northwestern’s four other starters.
Deary said she always hoped to grow as she aged, and when it never happened, she learned to view her height as a “blessing.” When many players surpass 6 feet, Deary’s proximity to the ground creates trouble for her opponent.
“I can be more explosive,” she said. “Nobody wants to have somebody below them when they’re dribbling — that’s really annoying.”
And that’s exactly how some of Deary’s taller teammates described playing with and scrimmaging against her. They called her “pesky,” “sneaky,” “feisty and tenacious,” “poised,” “confident,” and McKeown said she is naturally aggressive.
But Deary doesn’t evaluate herself as an individual. If the Wildcats lose, she thinks she played poorly.
Before every game, she thinks about what her team needs most from her in that particular matchup. She stretches, prays and listens to Tye Tribbett’s gospel music, which calms her nerves and keeps her positive.
“I’d hate to play against her, so I’m really glad she’s on my team,” senior guard Maggie Lyon said. “She just doesn’t care who she’s guarding, she doesn’t care who she’s playing against. She knows what she can do, and she goes out there fearlessly and does it.”