Sarah Ashlee Barker’s memory of grandmother ‘Nonie’ is her inspiration

Georgia's Sarah Ashlee Barker plays against N.C. State in a game on Dec. 16, 2021. Barker hit a game-tying 3-pointer in a game Georgia won in overtime.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Heath Kleindienst/NC State Athletics

Credit: Photo courtesy of Heath Kleindienst/NC State Athletics

Georgia's Sarah Ashlee Barker plays against N.C. State in a game on Dec. 16, 2021. Barker hit a game-tying 3-pointer in a game Georgia won in overtime.

ATHENS — A few hours after a game-tying shot that defined the first season-plus of her career, Sarah Ashlee Barker sat on the charter plane with her Georgia teammates. She soaked in a moment where the sophomore had willed her team to victory over powerhouse N.C. State in an early-season December game and found the spotlight.

She smiled when a slew of congratulatory messages turned into a video spreading across social media and among the “Top 10 Plays” on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Barker became a known name across women’s college basketball in a matter of a single shot falling through the net. She laughed when freshman Kimmie Jenkins showed her a tweet from WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith about the shot.

“Wow, that was a crazy shot,” Barker thought to herself. “I was hyped about it. These are the moments you play for.”

Time went by, and the notifications flooded Barker’s phone. The person she wanted to hear from the most, though, couldn’t be reached. Tears began to well in her eyes.

Her biggest fan who rarely missed a chance to watch her granddaughter play. The one who would send Barker a message with 10 simple words: “I’m so proud of you. I love you so much.” The one who Barker lovingly called “Nonie,” couldn’t be there. Ten months earlier, her grandmother, Phyllis DiGiovanna, died Feb. 6 of complications from COVID-19. She was 72, just 12 days before her birthday.

All of this was for her.

“It’s hard when they’re not texting you in moments that they usually would,” Barker said. “She means the world to me, and everything I do is for her. I want to keep making her proud.”

Georgia women's basketball player Sarah Ashlee Barker (left) with her grandmother Phyllis DiGiovanna and her brother Harrison at her high school graduation.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sarah Ashlee Barker

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Sarah Ashlee Barker

Barker’s shot against N.C. State forced overtime and led to an 82-80 victory over an ACC foe that was ranked No. 2 nationally. She had made two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and had the hot hand. Georgia drew up a play for its shooter with three seconds remaining, similar to one that worked 11 days earlier in a comeback effort against Georgia Tech.

The play slightly broke down, but Barker didn’t have any time to think. She fired away on what appeared like a heave to the casual eye. She said, however, that she took a normal shot and had “no hesitation” before launching it. It fell through in what could mold the narrative of Georgia’s strong season.

“She’s a dangerous player,” freshman Jillian Hollingshead said. “She gets hot and it’s over with.”

“The ball left her hands, and we knew it was going in,” freshman Reigan Richardson said. “We knew we were going to win after that.”

A few inches from where Barker planted her feet, she saw the on-court logo that paid tribute to legendary coach Kay Yow. She battled breast cancer, and so did DiGiovanna. Barker received plenty of signs of DiGiovanna’s presence inside Reynolds Coliseum.

Barker has faced struggles through grieving her loss since that day in February, when Barker was a freshman. At times, it can make it tough to play basketball. The memory of her late grandmother, who she loved most, will lead Barker through the remainder of her playing career.

“Her Nonie was someone who is really, really special to her,” Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. “They were really close. Her passing weighed really heavily on SA, and it still does. It’s still fresh, especially on different occasions. They’re still there and watching.”

Two days before DiGiovanna’s passing, Georgia played at Alabama, an hour’s drive from Birmingham, Barker’s hometown. She had gotten a call before the game from her mother, Amy DiGiovanna, that Phyllis wasn’t going to make it through the next few days.

Barker went to Taylor, who she considers as her second mother, and received the option to sit out against the Crimson Tide. She decided to play, because her grandmother would’ve wanted it, and logged a season-high 31 minutes.

Barker went to her head coach to cry, too, and fell into Taylor’s arms.

“I knew I was loved by her. She’s family,” Barker said. “It would’ve been a lot harder without Joni.”

Rather than flying back to Athens with the team, Georgia’s staff let Barker join her family. Barker didn’t have much of an idea of how her grandmother had regressed because she played four-plus hours away from her loved ones. She got some relief from the difficult experience because she could be present.

Barker sat in the hospital room to be along her mother’s side and say a final goodbye to her Nonie. All of the memories and affection shared between the two came flowing through the hospital room. Barker remembered their frequent trips to favorite Mexican restaurant Don Pepe, which always involved an order of queso. She cherished her grandmother’s never-ending support as Barker grew up through basketball and won a state championship at Spain Park (Ala.) High School.

“It was the hardest moment,” Barker said. “We were all so close. None of us saw this coming.”

Barker remained with her family, and missed the following game against Auburn. Georgia didn’t see basketball as the priority for Barker at the time, and the program offered plenty of support. Barker’s biggest backing came from Jenna Staiti, who lost her grandmother six months earlier. Ann Reda, known as “Mema” by the Staitis, died from myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in August 2020.

Staiti had been there. She understood the pain. Staiti got word of her teammate’s situation before the Alabama game, and made Barker a priority. Staiti texted constantly, and allowed Barker to release emotions in their Tuscaloosa hotel room.

“It’s something you never get used to,” Staiti said. “All of us leaned on each other.”

Barker connected with Staiti before arriving to campus, and lent a hand when Reda’s died. Staiti jumped to do the same. She urged Barker to create something in DiGiovanna’s memory, similar to Staiti’s purple wristband that reads “Love, Mema,” which she wears each game on her ankle.

Along with Barker and Staiti, former Georgia guard Caitlin Hose also lost a close family member around the same time. The three Lady Bulldogs developed a strong, inseparable bond.

“We connected on that level,” Barker said. “We were going to understand each other because no one else went through that. I truly believe God brought me together with Jenna.”

DiGiovanna’s texts are saved in Barker’s phone. She goes back to view them on occasion. They bring sadness, but the memory of her late grandmother brings joy. The reminder of Nonie’s love persists.

On that night, Barker’s reflection on the plane centered around her grandmother. She thought what it would’ve been like if DiGiovanna had seen the shot, encouraged before the game or given a warm postgame embrace.

“She’s got the best seat in the house,” Barker said. “I still act like I’m getting that text, even though it’s not there.”