Mike Neighbors put a lot on Makayla Daniels’ plate.
Before the season started, the University of Arkansas women’s basketball coach asked Daniels to start at point guard. He asked her to defend the opposition’s best player in every game. He asked her to perform those duties with the kind of poise and veteran leadership needed to tackle a schedule stacked with top-tier competition.
It’s the kind of workload an experienced upperclassman can handle — except that Daniels was just four months removed from playing for Frederick High School’s basketball team when she experienced her first taste of college basketball activity during offseason workouts in July.
But if there was a freshman in the country who could handle that much responsibility, Neighbors thought, it was Daniels.
“She was the most freshman-ready point guard I’ve ever been associated with in 20 years of college coaching,” Neighbors said of Daniels, who played a big role in elevating the Razorbacks to a position they’d never achieved in a half-decade.
Daniels started every game, averaging 9.3 points and 2.4 assists for an Arkansas team that ended the season ranked 24th in the final Associated Press Division I top 25 poll. If not for the coronavirus pandemic that halted the season, the Razorbacks (24-8) would have played in their first NCAA tournament in five years, and their 10-6 record in the competitive Southeastern Conference marked just the third time they finished over .500 in league play since the 1990-91 season.
Daniels wasn’t ever promised such a prominent role, and Neighbors said the subject of playing time never came up during the recruiting process.
“I’ll tell you, the biggest thing about her and her family: They never asked about it,” Neighbors said, referring to Daniels and her parents, Wynetta and Kenny.
But Arkansas began considering the possibility of Daniels starting at point guard with the team’s returning starter at the position, redshirt junior A’Tyanna Gaulden, sustaining an undisclosed injury last summer.
Neighbors first saw Daniels play in April 2017, flying out to Chicago at the request of then-Razorbacks assistant coach Lacey Goldwire — a family friend of the Danielses who made persuading Daniels to commit to Arkansas a top priority. Staked out at an outer court at a multi-court facility as he watched Daniels, then a sophomore at Frederick, and her Maryland Belles travel league team, Neighbors didn’t linger too much at the tournament.
He was sold.
“There was no long evaluation process,” Neighbors said. “You could tell the kid had it.”
In addition to possessing the sheer talent that so many others exhibit in travel ball circuits, Daniels presented herself as someone who was constantly in control. She was in command of everything on the court offensively and defensively, and she was in control of her emotions.
Then as Neighbors later started interacting with Daniels, he learned of her maturity, humility and strong performance in the classroom. A little more than two years later, Neighbors took all of this into consideration when deciding she was capable of stepping in to take over the starting point guard duties after Gaulden suffered her injury. In his mind, Daniels’ basketball skills made her a very good player, but the other intangibles made her special — and she needed to be considering playing point guard required her to have the ball in her hands more than anyone else on the court.
“When that injury happened, [with] Makayla, it kind of became her team to lead from the point guard spot, which is really hard for a freshman,” Neighbors said.
That’s because Daniels needed to earn the respect of her teammates, especially the upperclassmen. Two of them were 23 and 22 years old, respectively.
During practices before the start of the season, Daniels displayed some of the talent that made her a three-time Frederick News-Post Player of the Year, showing she could beat players off the dribble and shoot from the perimeter on offense while locking down opposing guards defensively.
But Daniels couldn’t truly earn that respect until the season started.
“I think there was an immediate amount of respect for her talent, I think there was an immediate amount of respect for other things,” Neighbors said. “But, it’s very fair for the upperclassman to [say], ‘Yeah, she’s very good out here in workouts. Let’s see what happens when they turn on the lights.’”
Under those brights lights, Daniels more than proved herself.
She enjoyed a breakout performance against Oral Roberts in the Razorbacks’ third game of the season, scoring 27 points while going 8-of-11 from the field, including 6-of-7 from beyond the 3-point arc, in a 96-64 victory. She also had three assists and two steals. Daniels’ big game didn’t really surprise Neighbors, but the fact that she didn’t have too many dry spells as a scorer did.
“You could tell that the kid could score, but to do it consistently in the SEC and against the nonconference schedule that we put together ... you want to say, ‘I knew she could do it,’” Neighbors said. “But you really can’t. You’re guessing.”
Consistently playing well in the SEC takes on meaning because four other teams in the league also finished the season ranked in the AP’s top 25, including top-ranked South Carolina. Against SEC opponents, Daniels found herself defending the likes of Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter, a projected first-round pick in the WNBA draft.
Neighbors pointed out that Daniels held Howard, the SEC’s Player of the Year, to 1-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc in the Razorbacks’ 103-85 victory over the Wildcats — the nation’s 16th-ranked team. Arkansas later toppled Texas A&M in the SEC quarterfinals, rallying from a 17-point deficit for a 67-66 win.
If Daniels endured any rough spells throughout the course of a game, she’d often bounce back and raise her level of play. Neighbors recalled a game during which Daniels committed four turnovers in the opening quarter but then did not turn the ball over for the rest of the contest.
While Daniels started every game, she and Gaulden virtually split time toward the end of the season, when the latter had put her injury woes behind her. Neighbors said the point guards engaged in healthy competition in practice, helping each other improve.
“[Gaulden] deserves a lot of credit because a lot of upperclassmen would have tried to sabotage that poor freshman, and she was the exact opposite,” Neighbors said. “She helped the kid because she knew we needed her for our team.”
As for the starting lineup, Neighbors opted not to make any changes as the team continued to pile up victories.
“I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious,” Neighbors said. “I’m not going to change a lineup that’s working. Makayla had earned it, and [Gaulden] accepted it and fulfilled her role, and they developed a really, really cool relationship.”
The coronavirus outbreak forced Daniels and other students at Arkansas to leave their campus this week. The News-Post reached out to arrange an interview with Daniels, and Neighbors said she could not be reached because she was en route to Maryland.
Junior forward Laila Abdul-Rahman (Frederick) averaged 3.2 points and 1.9 rebounds over 25 games for Stevenson (13-12).
Redshirt junior forward Kendall Bresee (Urbana) earned third-team All-Northeast Conference honors after leading Mount St. Mary’s (20-11) in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and assists (3.8 rpg) while ranking second on the team in scoring (11.3 ppg). She also averaged 1.9 steals per game for a Mount team that won 20 games for the first time in 20 years.
Sophomore forward Meghan Carlson (Oakdale) played in 27 games, making 10 starts for York College (17-11), which advanced to the Capital Athletic Conference championship game before falling to Christopher Newport. She averaged 2.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Teammate Tori Geitner (St. John’s Catholic Prep), a freshman guard, averaged 1.4 points over 19 games.
For the second straight season, junior forward Sydney Clayton (St. John’s Catholic Prep) was the second-leading scorer (17.5 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.5 rpg) for Shepherd (21-9), earning her first-team All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference honors. Clayton also led the PSAC in field goal percentage (.592) and blocks per game (2.3). Her 69 blocks tied the single-season school record Laura Hawkins set in 2008.
Junior guard Lauren Keeney (Middletown) was the third-leading scorer for Hood College (6-19), averaging 8.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. She scored a season-high 21 points in a 68-66 overtime win over Lebanon Valley. Meanwhile, sophomore guard Rian Wright (Walkersville) played in five games, averaging 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds.
Senior guard McKenzie Mathis (Walkersville) played in every game for a Shenandoah University team that went 6-21 her freshman year but steadily improved since, finishing 16-10 this season. Mathis averaged a team-high 3.2 assists, 3.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. Her teammate, sophomore forward Olivia Weinel (Linganore), averaged just 16 minutes per game but still finished as the team’s second-leading scorer (9.1 ppg).
Junior forward/center Gemma Mochi played in 20 games for Washington College (10-15), averaging 2.2 points and 2.1 rebounds.
Sophomore forward Jessica Mitchell (Linganore) played in six games for UNC-Wilmington (10-20).
Three of the top five scorers for Gallaudet (9-16) played high school basketball at Maryland School for the Deaf.
Freshman guard/forward Cassidy Perry led the Bison in scoring (16.4 ppg) and ranked second in the North Eastern Athletic Conference in rebounding (9.5 rpg), earning her NEAC Rookie of the Year and second-team All-NEAC honors. Perry’s field goal percentage (.570) led the NEAC, and her free throw percentage (.845) ranked second in the league. Junior guard Emelia Beldon, Gallaudet’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game and a third-team All-NEAC pick, led the team in assists (5.8 apg) while freshman guard Rajena Guettler averaged 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest.
Senior forward Cameron Pitts (Oakdale) played in 24 games for Carnegie-Mellon (11-4), averaging 3.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent (31-of-66) from the field.
Freshman guard Fiona Rowan played in two games, averaging 5.5 points and 1.5 rebounds per game for Shippensburg (21-9).
Redshirt sophomore guard Taylor Stafford (St. John’s) played in 12 games for Fairmont State (15-14), averaging 3.8 points per game.
Sophomore forward Braxton Foreman (Thomas Johnson) played in 32 games for Angelina College (24-9), averaging 5.1 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
Freshman forward Brycen Hill (St. John’s Catholic Prep) averaged 1.2 points over 14 games for York College (23-6), which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament before falling to Mount Union.
Senior guard Thomas Lang (Linganore) broke his own Shepherd single-season school record by making 111 3-pointers, which put him in a three-way tie for fifth among all NCAA Division II players. Lang averaged a team-high 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists, earning him first-team All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference honors. He also set a school single-game mark by hitting 11 3-pointers in a 101-50 win over Wilson, and he scored a career-high 42 points in an 85-79 win over Bowie State. He finished his career with 1,560 points and 301 3-pointers. Lang’s teammate, junior forward Kyle Daggett (Walkersville), ranked second on the Rams in scoring (11.8 ppg) and rebounding (4.9 rpg), and he shot a team-high 58.1 percent (143-of-246) from the field.
Freshman guard Rory Lewis (Maryland School for the Deaf) averaged 4.1 points and 2.2 rebounds for Gallaudet (5-20), while sophomore guard John Werner Jr. (Maryland School for the Deaf) played in 22 games for the Bison.
Freshman forward JR Powe (Thomas Johnson) was named Penn State University Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year after helping lead NAIA Penn State-Mont Alto to a PSUAC championship. Also a first-team All-PSUAC selection, Powe led Mont Alto in scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg) while also averaging 1.3 assists per game.
Powe registered 17 points and 10 rebounds in the PSUAC title game, hitting a 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 6 seconds left that gave his team the lead for good in a 64-61 win over Penn State-York. He finished with nine double-doubles, including a 20-point, 24-rebound performance in a win over Penn State-Greater Allegheny and a 33-point, 15-rebound outburst in a victory over Penn State-Du Bois.
Also, freshman guard Nate Osei (Frederick) averaged 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds over 30 games, freshman forward Nevaes Gordon (Thomas Johnson) averaged 1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds over 24 games, and freshman forward Anthony Davis (Tuscarora) averaged 1.9 points and 1.0 rebounds over 23 games.
After going 15-16 as a sophomore at 141 points, junior Danny Bertoni (Middletown) went 23-6 at the same weight class for the University of Maryland. Bertoni won eight of his matches by major decision and recorded two more victories by technical fall. His teammate, freshman Kevin Makosy (Urbana), went 11-13 at 197 pounds.
Freshman Earl Blake (Linganore) went 11-12 at 125 pounds at Kent State, recording four pins and winning one bout by major decision.
Redshirt senior Tyler Makosy (Urbana) competed at 149 and 157 pounds for UNC-Pembroke, going 30-10 and making the NCAA Division II championships for the second straight year in his final season. He pinned six opponents, won six matches by major decision and claimed three more victories by technical fall, finishing his career with a 101-54 record.
Redshirt sophomore Sean Mullican (Middletown) finished 2-8 at heavyweight for West Virginia University.
Sophomore Josh Paige (Middletown) went 3-6 at 149 pounds for Messiah College, recording one pin.