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Five-star women’s basketball recruit Imari Berry understands why some people were confused about the decision she made earlier this summer.
Berry, a rising senior at Clarksville High School in Tennessee, ranks as the No. 3 guard and No. 7 overall recruit in the espnW rankings for the Class of 2024.
She’s a decorated, dazzling combo guard who will likely end her prep career with over 2,000 career points and a McDonald’s All-American Game invitation.
She had more than 30 scholarship offers from schools including South Carolina and UConn — two national powers — and Tennessee, the big in-state school down the road.
And she chose … Clemson?
Sure did. Berry, on Aug. 5, announced via X (formerly Twitter) she was “110% committed” to the Tigers and coach Amanda Butler, becoming the highest-ranked prospect to choose Clemson women’s basketball in the modern recruiting era that dates to the early 2000s.
Berry’s decision — which boiled down to Clemson and Tennessee, her two finalists — came as a surprise to many on social media.
A five-star recruit choosing Clemson, which had a winning record and won two WNIT games last season but has missed 19 of the past 20 NCAA Tournaments? Over name brands like UConn and South Carolina and Tennessee?
Given her relationship with Clemson and how long it had recruited her and how well her official visit went, Berry said it was an easy decision. That people are thrown off by her college choice is actually a little amusing, she told The State.
“If you paid attention to me, Clemson was a top one,” Berry said, adding with a laugh: “Everybody (close to me) knew that. If you didn’t, it’s not my fault.”
And there wasn’t any magic formula, according to Berry and her Clarksville High School coach, Brian Rush. Clemson simply did what it was supposed to do, traveling to the necessary games and making the necessary calls and showing a little extra love where some programs didn’t.
For Berry, that made the difference.
“She’s an incredibly compassionate kid,” Rush said. “Everything is based off relationships. She truly cares about her friends. And when people want to enter her life, they’ve got to prove that they care about her. It’s one of those things where there’s not enough time in this world to deal with selfish people.”
— SportsCenter NEXT (@SCNext) August 5, 2023
Becoming a top recruit
Berry — who has spent her entire life in Clarksville, Tennessee, about an hour north of Nashville — has been a big-time basketball player for a while.
She grew up learning the game from two older brothers who currently play college hoops, started playing AAU in third grade and got her first scholarship offer, from Murray State, when she was an eighth-grader.
Clemson was one of the first Power Five schools to offer Berry a scholarship in October 2021 ahead of her sophomore year.
That was long before she was ranked top 10 nationally, averaged 26 points per game and garnered so much recruiting attention that, in July 2022, she decided to stop posting new scholarship offers on her social media “because I want to lock in and learn more about the programs without any outside influences.”
Berry said she was immediately drawn to Clemson because of Butler, a Tennessee native who’s entering her sixth season as coach and gave her good vibes from their first interaction.
“Talking to Butler, she was cool,” Berry said. “She’s just funny, and she’s herself. People think they’ve gotta, like, not be themselves to be cool. ... But she’s herself. I really like her.”
As Berry’s star rose — she was ranked as a four-star recruit by the start of her junior season and has twice been runner-up for the statewide Tennessee Miss Basketball Award — she also appreciated how Clemson’s approach remained the same.
Even as more decorated programs jumped into the mix, the Tigers kept showing up to her games on the Adidas AAU circuit, and they kept calling.
And when Berry talked with Clemson, she talked with the entire staff — not just Butler, but her assistant coaches, too. She got to know the program through the eyes of assistants Daniel Barber and Joy Smith, both of whom are also entering their sixth year.
Berry said she didn’t get that from other top schools.
On coach Geno Auriemma and UConn, who offered in July 2022: “UConn, they talked to me for a couple months, then that was it.”
On coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina, who offered in June 2022: “They called me (to offer), and they barely talked to me afterwards.”
On coach Kellie Harper and Tennessee, the runner-up in Berry’s recruitment: “I barely talked to most of the coaching staff. I just talked to the head coach.”
After zeroing in on a few aspects of her game she wanted to improve — namely, layups and free throws — Berry broke out as a junior.
According to the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle newspaper, she averaged 26.1 points, seven rebounds, four steals and three assists per game; shot over 40% on 3-pointers; and set the program’s single-season scoring record.
The Wildcats went 27-5, won district and regional titles and reached the state tournament quarterfinals for the first time since 2017. After the season, Berry shot up from No. 32 to No. 7 in espnW’s rankings for the 2024 class and went from a four-star to a five-star recruit.
“As much as she scores, she’s incredibly unselfish,” Rush said. “And she understands the game. A lot of times, you get these great players where after they go to college they have to learn how to integrate themselves with a team because they’ve always been the man. ’Mari is just as happy when everybody else is scoring and she isn’t.”
Berry had always planned to commit before her senior year. Entering the summer, she was down to two schools — Clemson and Tennessee — and scheduled official visits to both.
But she never made it to Rocky Top. When Berry, her mother and her AAU coach took in Clemson on her official visit in late June, everything felt right.
Clemson took Berry to dinner and axe throwing (yes, axe throwing). She watched a practice and took in a presentation on the school’s name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities. She hung out with the current team and played the popular card game UNO. Walking around downtown Clemson, she took notice of how many fans recognized Butler and stopped to talk with her.
“It felt like family,” Berry said. “It didn’t feel like they just wanted me to play basketball there. … They were gonna treat me like family.”
In her second ever trip to the state of South Carolina (the first was for an AAU tournament in Rock Hill), Berry committed to Clemson during a dinner at Butler’s house. When she told Tennessee of her decision, the Vols asked if she’d still take her official visit to Knoxville.
“But I have so much respect for Clemson that I didn’t go,” Berry said.
She went public with her decision Aug. 5 and became the highest-ranked commit in Clemson history. At No. 7, Berry is eight spots ahead of Ruby Whitehorn, a five-star recruit from Michigan who ranked No. 15 nationally when she signed with Clemson in the Class of 2022.
Whitehorn just wrapped up an ACC All-Freshman season for the Tigers, who went 19-16 in 2022-23. Despite a 7-11 record in conference play, they finished strong with wins in five of their last seven games, an ACC Tournament win and a WNIT Super 16 appearance.
Whitehorn and Berry — the top two commits in program history in back-to-back years — could realistically team up for two years as Clemson pushes for a return to the national stage.
Butler is the Tigers’ fourth head coach since 2005. Clemson hasn’t been ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2001 and has only three NCAA Tournament appearances this century (most recently in 2018-19, Butler’s first year) after appearing in 13 of 15 tournaments from 1987 to 2001.
But Berry — confident in her college choice after turning away the type of schools most five-star recruits would choose in a heartbeat — wants to help change that.
“I’m ready to play,” she said. “I’m ready to be a Tiger. I’m just ready — ready to be a Tiger and then go to the WNBA.”