After De-An Watkins graduated from Athens (AL) High School in 2003 with two 5A girls’ basketball state championships on her resume, she thought her athletic career was over. She intended to enroll at a strong academic school and hit the books hard to prepare herself for a career in law. But the lure of the hardwood was strong, and freshman Watkins decided to give college ball a try. Since then she’s been writing sports history. Now a senior, Watkins lights the fuse for women’s basketball’s most explosive team, Kentucky’s Berea College.
Students admitted to Berea pay no tuition, but all of them must work at college jobs to help defray the costs of their education. No exceptions are made for athletes, who play sports in whatever time is left after they’ve fulfilled their academic and labor obligations. But Watkins, pursuing a tough double major in sociology and political science, craved physical activity as a respite from the bookwork. She went out for basketball and made the team.
That season Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad installed a hyperaggressive style of basketball that coupled a turnover-forcing pressure defense with a running, gunning attack fueled by three-point shooting. Watkins, a 5-5 guard, showed outstanding quickness and athleticism. Harkleroad wanted guards versatile enough to penetrate and score or kick the ball back out to the perimeter shooters and dart toward the basket for offensive rebounds. Could Watkins become that type of player?
“In high school I was good at finding the post, but that’s not a big part of our game at Berea,” says Watkins. “Here we look for our outside shooters first, and I had to learn to deliver to them as soon as they were open, without hesitation. If the shooters are covered, the guards will take it to the hoop.”
The Lady Mountaineers had never won 20 games in a season before Watkins arrived. Since then they’ve set school records in each of the last 3 seasons, winning 21, 22, and 26 games. They led the nation in scoring in all three campaigns, and last year they earned Berea’s first-ever bid to the NAIA-II national tournament. This year’s team is 7-0 and is once again averaging over 100 points per game. Watkins is leading the team in rebounds and assists.
Berea’s starter at point guard has mastered the art of making quick decisions and quick moves without turning the ball over. “De-An has been a huge part of our success,” says Harkleroad. “We’ve watched her gain confidence in her ballhandling and shooting, and she has become a terrific rebounder who frustrates our opponents when she crashes the offensive boards. She has a tremendous attitude and a high energy level that is contagious, along with strong leadership skills. De-An needs to have a great year for our team to have a great year, and I think she’s going to do it.”
“De-An is full of enthusiasm, full of life, and she’s so quick,” adds senior co-captain Rebecca May. “Her quickness is her greatest asset on offense and defense. She gets a lot of steals, and when we have the ball, our opponents hate to see her bringing the ball down the court.”
Although Watkins has retained her interest in criminal justice, a summer internship in the Capital Defenders Office in Richmond (VA) convinced her to pursue an advanced degree in social work after she graduates from Berea. This will prepare her for a career as a mitigation specialist, a person appointed in capital cases to investigate the background of indigent defendants. “De-An is one of the most level-headed people I’ve ever met,” says Harkleroad. “She’s certain to succeed.”
Watkins is the daughter of Eddie Watkins of Athens and Diane Washington of Charleston, South Carolina. She is the stepdaughter of Shaquana Hood Watkins.