Alabama wanted to court Cardinal O’Hara star Aaliyah Parker. So, too, did a couple of Big East schools, along with programs from the Atlantic 10.
Whatever offers they pitched did not matter to the 5-foot-11 guard. Parker wanted to play with big sister Angel at Niagara University and accepted an offer a year ago.
It is not the first time Aaliyah has walked in her sister’s footsteps.
She followed Angel to Cardinal O’Hara, where Angel had put in the work to become a star at the top girls basketball program in the area and earn Sister Maria Pares Buffalo News Girls Basketball Player of the Year in 2018.
Fittingly enough, Aaliyah did the same thing, including securing the Sister Maria Pares Buffalo News Girls Basketball Player of the Year honor for the 2021 season as part of the annual All-Western New York teams.
Aaliyah is the fourth O’Hara player in eight seasons to earn the distinction of being selected News Player of the Year, and the first since Angel three years ago.
She achieved it during a season many weren’t sure would happen due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I feel honored to be chosen as the player of the year,” Parker said. “I really worked hard for it, and I’m just really grateful that I got it. … I wanted to follow in Angel’s footsteps so I’m really happy I got it.”
Parker gets the nod for Sister Maria Pares Player of the Year over Shay Ciezki of St. Mary’s of Lancaster and last year’s player of the year, Amari DeBerry of Williamsville South.
The All-WNY teams and player of the year are selected by The Buffalo News in consultation with area coaches and basketball aficionados. Only those selected to the first team are considered for the player of the year honor.
Parker’s selection means there hasn’t been a girls player to earn the player of the year award in consecutive seasons since Pioneer’s Joelle Connelly in 2007 and 2008. Niagara Wheatfield’s Angela Tylec was the only other back-to-back player of the year in 1997 and 1998.
Cardinal O’Hara coach Nick O’Neil considers Parker’s versatility as her best skill. It’s something even he didn’t anticipate until watching her develop before his own eyes into a tall girl who could handle the rock and shake off pressure.
“Aaliyah Parker has always gotten better and better,” he said. “Over the last two years, we’ve moved her over to the point guard where I think she took off. She developed her game in ways I didn’t think she would. I always thought she’d be a two, three or four, but she showed me she could play any position on the floor. And that made us almost unbeatable up this way because of her versatility, because of her desire to win and her leadership to lead other girls to win. … I think she deserves player of the year because she’s not only the best player but the most versatile player in Western New York.”
O’Neil left out one thing.
Parker dominated on the court for a Cardinal O’Hara team (14-0) that went unbeaten for the first time, won its eighth consecutive Monsignor Martin playoff championship and captured its second straight Buffalo News large schools poll championship.
Parker recorded team-high averages of 18.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.6 steals and 4.5 assists for a talented O'Hara crew.
Like any special player, Parker played her best when the stakes were at their highest.
She kicked it into an extra gear in games against St. Mary’s, Amherst, and anyone else who threatened to take away a ‘W’ from the Hawks.
In the first meeting with a St. Mary’s team, she led an O’Hara comeback as the Hawks earned a five-point win at the Laverack Avenue school. In that game, Parker scored 10 of her game-high 20 points, including a layup that gave O’Hara the lead for good, during the final 6:35. She also grabbed a key offensive rebound late – one of 13 total – that enabled the Hawks to milk the clock.
In the next meeting with the Lancers, which enabled O’Hara to secure home court for the Monsignor Martin title game, the Hawks triumphed, 64-54. Parker led the way with 25 points, scoring 10 during a 29-3 first-half blitz that allowed the Hawks to seize control. Still, the Lancers rallied within four points. That’s when Parker and longtime friend and teammate Mia McCarthy resorted to their bread-and-butter play – a pick and roll near the arc with Parker setting up McCarthy for the open 3-pointer that blunted St. Mary’ comeback.
In a regular season win at The News' No. 3 Amherst, the one team that has given O’Hara problems the past three seasons, the Hawks ended a two-game losing streak to the Tigers, thanks to Parker seemingly grabbing every key rebound and either scoring via putback or setting up a teammate for points during a 72-57 victory. She finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and six steals.
In the Monsignor Martin final, Parker secured game MVP honors after notching a team-high 24 points to go along with eight steals, six rebounds and three assists. She scored 20 after halftime. She was in the middle of the decisive run again with the game tied at 28-28. She sparked a 13-2 blitz midway through the third quarter as O’Hara pulled away for good and had five of the points during the run. In addition to that, she temporarily took the defensive task of guarding St. Mary’s best player and made consecutive steals that led to O’Hara points.
Big-time plays by a big-time player.
“I believe every big play we had this year she was involved in making the pass, taking the shot, grabbing the rebound,” O’Neil said. “I believe that her doing that led us to all types of victories we might not have gotten without her.”