One year ago, on the eve of the championship game of the KIAC women’s basketball tournament, Berea College’s Rebecca May had every reason to congratulate herself. No Berea team had ever played its way to the tournament finale, and the former Lincoln County High School standout could look back on a magnificent individual season in which she set a Berea College record for points scored and broke the national NAIA-II record for 3-pointers.
But May wasn’t satisfied, not yet. Challenging Berea that day would be KIAC reigning champion Bethel (TN) College, a team loaded with skilled and experienced athletes. Moreover, Bethel was a team that reveled in its reputation as the most ferocious collection of hellcats in five states. Bethel’s trademark was a clutching, clawing, hip-checking attack more akin to hockey than basketball, a style calculated to bully and intimidate.
“Bethel was our great rival,” May recalls. “They were always the team to beat. We’d been anticipating this game for three years. We knew they were leaving the KIAC to join another conference, and this was our last chance to show them what Berea is all about.”
Bethel’s foremost objective was to choke off Rebecca May. They met her with elbows, forearms, fingernails, and a torrent of loathsome insults.
Shortly after tipoff a Bethel player grabbed May and hissed, “You ain’t ever gonna get the ball.” A heartbeat later May seized a teammate’s pass and rocketed home a 3-pointer. Glancing back at her shocked defender, she replied, “Oh, really?”
“They thought they had us, but we just took over,” says May. “We played our system the way it is supposed to be played, on offense and defense. I was determined to do everything I could to help us get to the nationals.”
For 60 minutes May treated fans to an unforgettable demonstration of the poise and coolness under fire that has defined her career as a college athlete. She burned Bethel for 30 indispensable points in leading the Lady Mountaineers to a 6-point victory and a first-ever trip to the NAIA national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
As Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad saw it, “Rebecca dominated the championship game that was likely the highlight of our program's history.”
“One of them tripped me,” May remembers, “and I got a big floor burn on my arm. I still carry that scar, and it’s my favorite.”
This was the player who thought she was through with basketball after high school. After graduating from LCHS in 2002, May enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University. “I lived with my parents (Doug and Kim May of Waynesburg, KY) and commuted to Eastern. I had decided I didn’t want to play sports anymore. I enjoyed having more free time, but basketball had been part of my life since I was tiny, and I missed it. I was drawn to Berea, a tuition-free school where I could play basketball.”
At Berea College, sports don’t top the priority list. 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. Although every athlete at Berea is a walk-on, Berea’s teams hold their own by attracting competitors who are uniquely committed.
In May’s first year at Berea, Harkleroad implemented a fast-paced new scheme centered on relentless pressure defense and a quick-triggered three-point shooting offense. He wanted May, a 5-8 shooting guard distinguished by above-average intelligence and coachability, to become one of his team’s primary offensive weapons. The system worked, and May flourished. Berea, which had never won 20 games in a season before, passed the 20-win milestone in each of May’s seasons and, at 18-6, is bearing down on a fourth 20-win campaign. May now holds Berea’s all-time record for points scored in a career. Last year she was named second-team All-America by the NAIA.
Berea College has been a good fit for May, who states, “It’s close-knit, not so big that you’re just a face in the crowd. Academically it’s an excellent school that has challenged me in so many ways. I’ve grown as a student. I made C’s the first semester I was here, straight A’s last semester. And I’m a more well-rounded person.”
May’s major is Sociology Education, and she intends to teach high school or middle school social studies after she graduates this spring. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since sophomore year, but I wasn’t entirely positive until I student-taught last fall. It went very well. The kids were very warming toward me. I believe teaching is a career I’m going to enjoy.”
Berea’s defeat of Bethel in the 2006 KIAC tournament was a day to celebrate, and Rebecca May felt as elated as any of her teammates. But she wasn’t satisfied, and she’s still not satisfied.
Berea’s season ended a week later when the Lady Mountaineers, unaccustomed to the national stage, failed to menace Aquinas College while succumbing in the first round in Sioux City. This year May is a senior, and she believes she has something left to prove. “I want us to get back there and make a statement,” she says. “But it’s not going to be easy. Bethel is gone, but all the other teams in our conference have stepped up their play, and they’re burning to beat us. It will take a lot of heart and hard work and effort for us to win the KIAC again.”
According to Harkleroad, “What Rebecca has accomplished as an individual and what she has helped our team accomplish is something really special. Her role in our success over the past four seasons cannot be overestimated. And while she has received a lot of publicity for being one of the top shooters in the nation, she has always given credit to her teammates and shown appreciation to them for getting her the ball.”
Senior co-captain De-An Watkins adds, “Bec is truly a clutch player, and we are grateful to have her on our team. Many athletes who score a lot of points develop the big head and become unapproachable and not fun to be around. I can truly say that Bec is not that way!”