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How did Boston College women’s basketball have its best season in ages? Credit the ACC coach of the year

In her second year at BC, Joanna Bernabei-McNamara was the ACC Coach of the Year.
In her second year at BC, Joanna Bernabei-McNamara was the ACC Coach of the Year.jessica rinaldi/globe staff/Globe Staff

Before Joanna Bernabei-McNamee started her second season as Boston College women’s basketball coach this year, she wanted to set the baseline for what she expected of the players and what players expected of themselves.

She called them her “nonnegotiables.”

“It all was surrounded around effort,” she said.

She was aware, however, that it was one thing to establish them, but getting players to believe in them was something completely different.

“You also have to have a team that buys into that, right?” she said. “Or else practice would be miserable every day.”

One thing Bernabei-McNamee knew was that she had a mature group. So she had them sit down before the first practice, break off into three groups, and write down their own nonnegotiables.

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“They wrote down things that were unacceptable as a team,” she said. “Things that would be unacceptable for them as a teammate. And they wrote things down that were expected of them as teammates.”

She noticed that they wanted the same things she did. The common ground turned into a springboard for the start of the season.

“It was amazing because all three groups wrote down almost the exact same things,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “We talked about it and we said, ‘OK, listen, this is unacceptable both for us and it’s unacceptable for you guys, so let’s never take a play off in practice, let’s not ever come into practice with a bad attitude.’

“We just talked about it, and as a team, they really were into it. They saw they could do this. And we as a staff and me personally, I just promised them if we can get to a point where we can play harder and smarter than the teams we go up against, we’re going to have a really good year.”

The ACC tournament is next for Joanna Bernabei-McNamara and the Eagles.
The ACC tournament is next for Joanna Bernabei-McNamara and the Eagles.jessica rinaldi/globe staff/Globe Staff

There was no way for Bernabei-McNamee or her Eagles to know the season would play out as well as it has. They capped the regular season with a win at Syracuse that pushed their record to 18-11 (11-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), giving them the most wins in a season since 2010-11.

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Despite being picked to finish 13th in the ACC preseason poll, BC tied with Florida State and Virginia Tech for fourth, its highest finish since joining the conference in 2005. The Eagles will go into the conference tournament Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., as the sixth seed, facing the winner of the opening-round matchup between Miami and Clemson.

Bernabei-McNamee will go in as the ACC Coach of the Year after this whirlwind turnaround. In two seasons, she made a program that had struggled to crack double-digit wins into a formidable team in one of the country’s toughest conferences. She took over in 2018, embracing the challenge of rebuilding a team that went 7-23 the previous season. The Eagles won 14 games in Bernabei-McNamee’s first season.

“I didn’t know that we would do this well, but I expected it,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “We have high expectations. We set the goal of postseason play this summer. That’s one of the things that I really tried to instill in them is that there is not a team in the country in summer workouts that doesn’t expect to get postseason play.

“So what is going to help us get that is going to be our daily routine and work ethic, and each of their buy into putting in time on their own. And they bought into that.”

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Taylor Soule (left) and Cameron Swartz (right) cheer on their teammates at practice.
Taylor Soule (left) and Cameron Swartz (right) cheer on their teammates at practice.jessica rinaldi/globe staff/Globe Staff

When BC athletic director Martin Jarmond hired Bernabei-McNamee, he knew she had experienced success at a high level as an assistant at Maryland under Brenda Frese. She had led her own program at Albany, leading the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17, and had turned a program around at the University of Pikeville (Ky.), guiding it to an NAIA Final Four in 2016.

“I can’t say that I had the crystal ball to know how fast the results would come, but I knew the results would come,” Jarmond said. “I had no question in my mind that she was going to turn our program around, that she was going to get the most out of the kids that we had in the program and recruit at a high level. I just didn’t know how much time it would take.”

Bernabei-McNamee was the first coach hired under Jarmond, and as he went through the process, he met with players to find out what they wanted in a coach.

“One of the things they said was they felt like they weren’t working as hard as they could,” Jarmond said. “They felt like they wanted someone that was going to push them to be their best.

“So we go through the process, I hired Mac, and I see a couple of them about two weeks after she was hired and I said, ‘What do you guys think?’ And they said, ‘Man, she’s working us hard.’ And I reminded them, I said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

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“I knew right then she was already addressing something. That’s how you build trust. You have to say what you’re going to do and do what you say. Off the bat, she immediately did that.”

Bernabei-McNamee has the players working hard at practice.
Bernabei-McNamee has the players working hard at practice.jessica rinaldi/globe staff/Globe Staff

When the ACC preseason poll came out, Bernabei-McNamee was unfazed.

“We don’t put any stock in any of that kind of stuff,” she said. “When the preseason polls came out, I never even mentioned them to our team. And it’s where I would’ve put us at that point as well. So I don’t think that was a slap in the face by any means. That’s why preseason polls don’t really mean that much.”

What mattered was getting the Eagles to believe in an up-tempo style that required effort at both ends and discipline on offense. The Eagles play at one of the fastest paces in the country — 74.7 possessions per 40 minutes, according to HerHoopStats.com. But they also have one of the most efficient offenses, churning out 102.2 points per 100 possessions.

“What that means is instead of just taking the first available shot, let’s take the first available great shot,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “Let’s work it until it’s the shot that we really want. And because I have a group of really selfless kids that don’t have egos, they don’t worry about their personal numbers ever; they really bought into that.”

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She knew what she had in veteran leaders, such as senior forward Emma Guy, who averaged 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting an ACC-best 58.8 percent from the floor and earning first-team all-ACC honors, and young breakthroughs, such as sophomore forward Taylor Soule, who averaged a team-high 14.2 points and 8.0 rebounds and was named ACC Most Improved Player and all-ACC honorable mention.

“They really were excited for the changes that I put in place and they also wanted to win,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”

The players have bonded with themselves and with their coach.
The players have bonded with themselves and with their coach.jessica rinaldi/globe staff/Globe Staff

When the Eagles started 5-5 and navigated tough injuries and nonconference losses, Bernabei-McNamee didn’t worry.

“I could see us growing,” she said. “So there was always something positive to pull from even when we would have a disappointing loss. You could see that the team was bonding and growing through those losses.”

The Eagles won six of their last seven, and they’re taking that momentum into the conference tournament.

“We’re excited,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “We want this season to last as long as it possibly can.”


Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.