If Boston College is unrecognizable to fans right now, that is understandable.
Last year the Eagles ranked 302nd in the nation in offense and cracked 70 points per game only four times all season long. They finished 7-23, which included a nine-game losing streak during ACC play. The previous year, they went 9-21.
This season, new coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee and her revamped roster, which includes seven freshmen, are playing quick tempo on both ends of the floor. They push the pace and green light shooters on offense, while committing to that same speed – and stifling pressure – on defense. Underpinning the whole operation is their awe-inspiring ability to crash the glass. The squad is averaging 80.8 points per game, reached last season’s win total on Dec. 7, and sit on an 11-2 record entering conference play tomorrow.
The emphasis on tempo and transition has revitalized the team, but players said changes began off the court with communication, and a shift in focus.
Junior guard Taylor Ortlepp said the team embraced Bernabei-McNamee’s vision and system early on.
“I think we felt a massive change in the style of play in preseason, definitely,” Ortlepp said. “The way that we were working on getting out in transition, on getting up and down … and in doing that, Coach Mac put a major emphasis on being disciplined. Everything we did, we had to do with purpose. She really instilled that in us, which made us focus more and obviously generated the offense that we have.”
Junior forward Emma Guy said that approach is working.
“We’re playing at our level, which would be playing fast but not rushed, and always just looking for the open shot,” Guy said. “Being able just to play the game and make reads, that’s our style of play.”
That urgency and purpose has translated on defense as well. Last year the Eagles were 257th nationally in scoring defense and 306th in turnover margin. This season they are 78th and 51st, respectively, with their turnover rate better than six current AP top 25 teams. Playing at tempo defensively works because the team knows their most vital commitments must be speed and communication.
“We have to make a big, conscious effort to get back on defense,” junior forward Georgia Pineau said. “We get told a lot that….our first three steps have to be a a flat-out sprint, and that’s what triggers the defensive transition from everyone. We also have really good communication on the court most of the time.”
Freshman forward Taylor Soule, who started the first 12 games for Boston College this year before sitting out their last match up with a minor ankle injury, said she and her teammates are always talking during games and in practice.
“We’re talking all the time on defense, even on the bench,” she said. “That level of communication helps everyone do our jobs … If I’ve learned anything, it’s that talking to the other girls on the court and just communicating makes everything ten times easier.”
Players are also meshing their talents together, and will take turns as stats leaders with unselfish play.
“At different times, people step up,” Pineau said. “In defensive transition, Taylor Ortlepp doesn’t crash the rebounds on offense, she’s the automatic ‘get-back’ person so at least we have one person back. So she directs us a bit in that aspect. … But we all talk a lot. As many people as we can get to buy into the process of communication and helping each other out, the better we’ll be.”
The uptick in tempo on both ends has been essential, but everything ultimately triggers off of how relentlessly the Eagles crash the boards. They currently sit at 14th in the country in their rebounds margin, eighth in total rebounds, 16th in rebounds per game, and seventh in offensive rebounds. Given a roster where only four players are at least six feet tall, those numbers are staggering. But Bernabei-McNamee has emphasized rebounds from the beginning, and she credited her team for buying in.
“Rebounding has always been a huge part of my basketball philosophy, and again you have to have a willing team that’s ready to buy into that,” Bernabei-McNamee said.
Guy said players have embraced the message.
“In our practices, we do rebounding in almost every single drill, no matter what. We’re always taught to crash the boards, box out, get after it, get after each other,” she said. “That’s the competitive side to ourselves coming out.”
Pineau said the team fully understands why boards are important.
“The two times we’ve lost the rebounding count, we’ve lost the games,” she said.
Off the court, the Eagles have been building culture and chemistry, which started with Bernabei-McNamee and her staff.
The veteran coach came to Boston College with a sterling track record. She has held several assistant coaching positions – most notably as a recruiting coordinator and assistant on Brenda Frese’s Maryland staff, where she helped guide the Terps to the 2006 National Championship. As a head coach, she held a 126-65 career record at West Virginia Wesleyan, Pikeville, and Albany, and won several coaching awards.
Bernabei-McNamee also brought two assistant coaches with her: AJ Cohen, a former video coordinator at Louisville, and basketball legend Yolanda Griffith, who has assistant coaching experience at both the collegiate and WNBA levels.
That continuity was vital, as the first job the new coaching staff had was to instill a sense of communal investment from players who hadn’t bargained for the changeover.
“I always surround myself with high-energy, positive people”, Bernabei-McNamee said of her staff. “Having that mindset that you know you can win, and then working really hard for the process, not so much the win. … And our players buy in and they believe in that as well.”
Bernabei-McNamee credits her team’s openness in embracing her and her basketball philosophies.
“The team really did belong to the [previous] coaching staff. But they really welcomed us with open arms, and they had a really big buy-in from the jump, not just to us as a coaching staff, but to each other as a family,” she said. “And I think that’s really what you see in the record right now.”
Guy believes that family mentality is what fuels the Eagles.
“I definitely attribute a lot of our success to our team chemistry in the locker room,” she said. “We’re able to joke around and just have a lot of fun with each other, and I really think that translates to our confidence level and the way we succeed on the court.”
Achieving that buy-in was made both more easy and more difficult given the number of newcomers on the roster. On the one hand, they didn’t have to uproot a lot of “this is how we did it before” thinking as they would have with a more veteran squad. On the other, they had to bring together a team that mostly hadn’t played together at all before.
“That is a blessing, that we got to come in with such a young team,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “And even the returners, I think, were hungry for change. So it was an easy buy-in process, but I also love the way they bought in to each other.”
Soule said the camaraderie players have formed is special.
“It’s so fun to be a part of. Fun is the biggest word I’d use,” she said. “Everyone here is giving [each other] a lot of confidence and saying ‘hey, you other guys out there can say whatever you want to say, but we’re proving a lot of people wrong.'”
Bernabei-McNamee wants players to feel that they are understood and valued.
“One of my biggest philosophies is to be the coach that you would’ve wanted when you were a player, so that’s what my coaching staff really buys into,” she said. “We all coach these players just the way we would want to be coached. And I think when you have that environment, and a coaching staff that all loves each other, you’re inevitably going to have a team that kind of emulates that love and that family atmosphere. We’re blessed with that right now, and I love that about this team.”
Pneau said the Eagles realized what they needed to do right away.
“It started early, like postseason last year when coach first came in,” Pineau said. “Right from the get go, at the beginning of the summer, that’s when it hit us. We realized that we had to have everyone’s mentality in check and everyone needs to buy in to the process for us to be successful. Right from the beginning, we made sure that everyone had that good attitude, good mentality. The want to win, want to change.”
Under Bernabei-McNamee, there is an invocation among the players: non-negotiables, which she characterizes as giving all-out effort at all times.
“Non-negotiables are all things that as players they have 100 percent control over,” she said. “It’s not things like shooting percentage or turnovers. Everything we set expectations on is something they can control. Athleticism, how athletic you are doesn’t matter, but as long as you’re giving that effort, you can usually accomplish it.”
“Everyone is going to be a team player, everyone is going to work hard. We are going to respect each other on the court. And we’re going to set the bar everyday to where we’re giving everything we have to improve.”
Soule said Bernabei-McNamee’s non-negotiables are her focus.
“The biggest thing for me that sticks out is heart,” Soule said. “Coach always says you could be the worst basketball player ever, but it only takes your heart and how much you care to be great. So every possession, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing or how we’re playing, but the non-negotiable we always stress going into games is just just playing your heart out every single possession.”
Pineau said they have confidence in one another, and Soule said all are treated as equals.
“On this team, we all have a level of respect,” Soule said. “For [freshman guard Marnelle Garraud] and I, it doesn’t really matter about age. No one is going to say ‘you’re a freshman so you can’t do this or can’t be involved.’ We all have a role in guiding this team.”
Bernabei-McNamee and her team are taking the season one practice and one game at a time.
“I asked [one of our players] the other day: ‘As a basketball team, what are our goals this season?’ And she kind of thought for a second,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “And I said ‘you don’t know them, right?’ Because we don’t talk about any certain goals that we have to hit. Our goal is to get better every day. That’s the expectation as a team.”
“Every time we go out to practice and every game we play, we don’t want to take any step backwards, we want to get better each opportunity we have together.’ And she said ‘good. got you.'”
Guy is optimistic about the Eagles’ chances.
“This team is special,” she said. “I don’t know what it is about us, but I think we can surprise the world, and we can surprise people in the ACC with what we’re able to do. As long as we’re playing BC Basketball, we’ll be able to surprise a lot of teams.”
As they prepare to face red-hot Georgia Tech tomorrow, Boston College is confident.
“Coming into the season, we had a bunch of expectations on ‘What are the Eagles going to do this year?’ and kind of an underdog mentality,” Soule said. “But I think now, several games in, it’s kind of switched. We already know that we’re a new team. We’re not the underdogs anymore. We just have to keep proving ourselves.”