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Barnett gives UB needed boost

Dave Barnett's athletic options weren't what he thought they'd be coming out of East Aurora High School. Nobody had an interest in him as a football player even though he was an all-state defensive end going back to his junior year. No one had any interest in him as a basketball player because his skills were of the SportsCenter variety: He could wow you with a dunk, just don't ask him to handle the ball or hit a mid-range jumper.

"I really thought I could play Division I football, especially at Buffalo," Barnett said. "I went to a camp at UB and Turner Gill was somewhat interested but he didn't offer me the opportunity to walk on."

Barnett figured he'd enroll at Erie Community and hopefully cultivate Division I interest in his football skills by going the junior college route.

"When I say I had nowhere to go, I really had nowhere to go to play football or basketball," Barnett said.

Barnett returned to East Aurora High a week after graduation and was told they had received an envelope addressed to him. It was a letter from the University at Buffalo basketball program inviting him to attend its prospect camp. He'd basically been targeted in a mass mailing although he was too naive -- or too big a dreamer -- to know it. Division I schools don't ask high school graduates to pay $150 to attend their camps if there's genuine interest.

"My mom said I'll pay it but it's going to be your graduation present," Barnett said. "I said, 'Great. Let's do it.' So I went to this camp and I was doing athletic things and they noticed me, and the second day of camp -- it was a two-day camp -- coach [Reggie] Witherspoon approached me and said, 'We'd like to give you the opportunity to walk on here.' "

"We had not really seen Dave," Witherspoon said. "Dave is extremely athletic and right away we were like, 'Whoa. Who is this kid?' And that's rare for a Western New York kid. You got to be hiding pretty good for us not to know about him from the standpoint that we're from here, but also someone's going to call. We get a million calls [about] kids. So for us not to get a call was a bit of a surprise.

"But then we found out he played football and basketball and he wasn't sure what he wanted to play in college. We brought him in with the thought that we'll redshirt him, get him acclimated to playing on the perimeter full time. So he came in and just was anxious to learn. And we thought it would be a good situation with last year's class [where] he could develop over a period of time. He's just kind of a little better every day."

That's how Barnett ended up at UB. That was the beginning of a journey that transformed a raw but naturally talented athlete, a gifted leaper, into the player who scored a career-high 15 points and matched his career high with seven rebounds in UB's 73-70 victory over Akron on Sunday afternoon at Alumni Arena. It was Barnett's three-point shot from the deep baseline, a shot that went in-and-out and soared high before falling, that put the Bulls ahead to stay.

"Did Barnett surprise me? No," said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. "He's a great system guy. Reggie's system makes those guys good."

Barnett, a 6-foot-5 junior starter, remains a work in progress. He needs to improve on his ball-handling. He's shooting less than 55 percent from the free-throw line and missed a pair with 1.5 seconds left that would have put the game away. But those 15 points to go with four assists and two steals provided a window to his capabilities.

"[Sunday] he didn't play with worries," Witherspoon said. "He just competed. The more he just plays and doesn't worry -- he just plays -- then we'll really see him blossom."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com