Ever led the entire nation in steals? Melissa Gray has.
The Westfield State junior finished top in the country with 4.54 steals a game, as she was in everyone’s pockets all year long.
“Something I have always worked on in basketball is trying to figure out where the next pass is going. This has helped me throughout the years become better at reading passes and picking them off,” Gray said. “I have to say, there is something so satisfying about stealing the ball.”
She also collected some awards, reached milestones, and set a few records.
But well before that, the Peabody product was brought in to be an Owl back in 2017.
She was recruited to Westfield in the summer heading into her senior year of high school. She was on an AAU team called the MASS Thundercats, and that is where her career took off.
“It helped me grow as a player immensely. My team was coached by Jim Ridley and Marvin Avery, who are easily two of the best people I know,” Gray said. “They wanted to see me succeed from the first time they met me, and I am so grateful for that.”
The head women’s basketball coach at Westfield State, Andrea Bertini, heard about Gray through her Thundercats coach, who is a friend of hers. She then caught a few of her AAU tournaments and came in contact with her.
“I loved how she played,” Bertini said. “We then started to call and text, and we invited her on campus in the fall of her senior year.”
During her senior season, Bertini attended a few of her games along with Ashley Finnegan, an assistant coach at the time and Gray’s assistant coach her freshman year.
She then attended an overnight stay with her future Westfield teammate, Chelsea Moussette, who holds numerous awards and accolades herself.
“She was super sweet from the second I met her, and to this day is one the nicest people I know,” Gray said. “I really loved the team dynamic they had. Coach Bertini would text me often seeing how I was doing, how basketball was, etc. It was nice because it made me feel like they really wanted me on their team.”
In her first year, Gray averaged 10.1 points per game, earned four MASCAC Conference Rookie of the Week awards, and played a major part in the Owls’ MASCAC title win.
“She was an amazing fit right away,” Bertini said.
Gray first fell in love with the game of basketball at a very young age, as most of her family played.
Her father played at Quinnipiac University and taught her all of her moves.
“I have been playing basketball for as long as I can remember,” Gray said. “Sounds cliche to say, but it’s true.”
Her career started all the way back at Welch Elementary school, where she played in 4th and 5th grade. Then, she attended Higgins Middle School and played there for 3 years under Coach Bill Gulla and his sister, Jennifer Gulla Rogers.
“They were instrumental in my development as a player,” Gray said.
Then she played four years on the Peabody High School varsity squad.
“Throughout those four years, there were so many teammates I feel so fortunate to have played and grown with,” Gray said. “Throughout my life with basketball, I have had so many amazing coaches that have brought me to the point where I am now, and saying that I am blessed is an understatement.”
After that, she finished out her freshman year for the Owls, and then wrapped up her second year with even better numbers than before.
She improved her points per game to 17.1 and took a leap in steals per game from 1.5 to 2.8. She also finished in the top-10 in the nation for several three-point categories. She was named to the All-MASCAC Second-Team at the end of the year, after the Owls once again claimed the MASCAC title.
But her junior year is where she truly made the most noise.
About two months into the season, Gray and company took on Fitchburg State in a conference matchup. What resulted went down in record books.
Gray dropped in a career-high 37 points on 13-20 shooting, hit a school-record 10 three-pointers, and accounted for her 1,000th career point along the way.
“From the start of that game, I was solely focused on getting the win for our team. There were definitely a lot of emotions running through my mind before, but as soon as the clock started, my mind went into game mode. After the game, I was surprised by my brother who came to watch this career milestone of mine. I was filled with happiness knowing that he was there, along with my parents of course,” Gray said. “I have to say, I felt a sense of relief to have reached the 1,000 point mark in the first half. As the game went on and I drew closer to the three-point record, my coaches and teammates were all encouraging me to keep shooting. It was all an amazing feeling that I will never forget.”
Side note, the previous holder of that three-point school record is none other than her head coach Bertini.
“She’s just really fun to watch play and brings a joy to the game. Mel is one of those players who everyone on the team wants to get the ball and wants her to shoot,” Bertini said. “I’ve coached for a long time now, and it’s really unique and special players like Mel who the entire team gets excited and rallies around and really wants her to break these records. I think that is what ultimately sets Mel apart.”
Gray’s 37 points are the fourth-best in a game in program history. She also tied with Coach Bertini for the most three-pointers made in a half, as she dropped in six before halftime.
Another moment in the record books came earlier in December when Gray left an entire team with overturned pockets as she swiped the ball all game long.
In a matchup against Sage College, Gray stole the ball 14 times, setting a single-game steals record. She would come close to matching the record in the month of January, as she stole the ball 11 times in two separate games.
These performances contributed to her nation-best 4.54 steals per game at the end of the year. It also stands for the third-best average in program history.
“You knew if Mel was on the floor good things were going to happen,” senior teammate Alyssa Camara said. “Whether we were going on an 8-0 run, or creating six turnovers in two minutes, something amazing was bound to happen.”
“The importance of defense did not really hit me until I got to college. Of course I knew defense was important, however, in high school, I mostly was focused on scoring. At the time, I felt like that was the more important part of my game,” Gray said. “When I got to college, my coaches helped me realize how much of a priority defense is. If you asked me in high school, I wouldn’t say defense is a big part of who I am as a player, but it certainly is now. Once you start focusing on defense, your offense comes naturally, and that is a huge thing that I have learned in the past few years.”
And her offense did come naturally, as she led the MASCAC Conference in points per game with 21, and finished the year with the most points in the conference with 546. She topped the conference in three-pointers made with 103, which was 28 more than the next player. She also hit the most field goals with 191.
Her scoring accolades litter the Westfield State record books, but for almost all of them, she sits just behind a very familiar face in Coach Bertini.
Gray is second in three-pointers made in a season (103), three-pointers made per game in a season (4.0), consecutive games with a three-pointer made in a season (19), three-pointers made in a career (239), and bests the coach at three-pointers made per game in a career with 3.0.
“When she is playing, we are never out of a game because she can score nine points in 30-45 seconds and completely turn or close out a game. She is on pace to be the all-time leading scorer in school history, and I’m really hoping she does it,” Bertini said. “It would be such an amazing accomplishment for her as a player. I know she would definitely prefer another championship though, which is always the first goal for her.”
Gray currently sits in ninth place for most points in program history with 1,297, just 229 away from the record. And if her third-best in program history 546 points this past season has anything to say, she should be able to cruise to the top.
“She is an outstanding athlete in general, but her shooting is the best I have concretely ever seen. Being a senior and not shooting every chance I got, Mel was an inspiration to everyone to simply shoot your shot,” Camara said. “Playing with Mel Gray on the floor, you felt almost invincible.”