Louder Than Words Joanna Bernabei-McNamee believes there's more to basketball than just talent. And by fostering character and passion in her players, she's suddenly found her team in the national spotlight.

S

ure, finishing the 2018-19 season with a 14-19 record was an improvement from the 7-23 year prior, but it was never good enough for Boston College women’s basketball head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee. 

In fact, as some of her players noted, what onlookers might see as “good enough” probably wouldn’t even be good enough for her. 

So standing shoulder to shoulder with her team in a Greensboro, N.C. locker room after upending Duke in the ACC Tournament, Bernabei-McNamee had pride on her face and tears in her eyes. And she only had one thing to say. 

“What game’s the most important game?” she shouted at her players. 

“The next one!” they cheered back. 

“And who are we playing?”

“It doesn’t matter!”

Even making it to the second round of the ACC Tournament—let alone moving on from it—is something remarkable for BC, as it’s been a long road of losing season after losing season—the last time BC recorded a record over .500 was in 2010-11. But the celebrations over the win were short-lived, as Bernabei-McNamee had her sights set on what lay ahead. 

This season was the first step in Bernabei-McNamee’s years-long plan to push BC into the national spotlight. On the back of a record-breaking season, her underdog squad proved to the basketball world that the Eagles were not to be taken lightly. 

But Bernabei-McNamee doesn’t care about being labeled an underdog. All that matters to her is her team—her family—and a sheer passion for basketball. It’s that “win-for-each-other mentality” that set BC ahead of those who underestimated it. Her passion is palpable: On the court, in the press room, and on the phone, there’s a feeling that there is no team she’d rather be leading than BC. 

Her heart, character, and love for the game put her team’s progress leaps and bounds ahead of any other coach in the league, earning her the honors of The Heights2019-20 Coach of the Year. 

F

rom her players’ glowing reviews about her, it seems as though Bernabei-McNamee has been around the Heights a lot longer than she has. But it was just two short years ago that she made a promise in her introductory press release to “bring an unprecedented winning spirit back to the BC women’s basketball program.” And it seems as though she’s well on her way to fulfilling that promise.

Bernabei-McNamee arrived in Chestnut Hill as a relative unknown, simply because she had never been a head coach for a Power Five program before. She had begun to build her prowess as the ringleader at both Albany and Pikeville, but a chance to coach in the ACC was unfamiliar territory. 

“The ACC is just so competitive, and the coaches are legends, so to be among them is really humbling,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “But also there’s that added pressure of being a little more in the national spotlight compared to a non-Power Five conference, which I really enjoy. So it was exciting for me to take over this team and get them to love that pressure.”

That’s what she set out to do from the get-go—get the team to buy into her plan to seek out the spotlight.

“It’s hard for a lot of new coaches to do—to get everyone on your team to completely buy in,” said sophomore guard Marnelle Garraud reflecting on Bernabei-McNamee’s first year with BC. “But some way, she got all of us to do it.”

“It’s hard for a lot of new coaches to do—to get everyone on your team to completely buy in. But some way, she got all of us to do it.” Marnelle Garraud

And the way she did that, according to Garraud, is by having “one of the biggest mom hearts you could ever find.” Garraud said that it has always been less about Bernabei-McNamee’s vision and more about the players’ visions for themselves. 

Trusting her team’s personal goals for success, Bernabei-McNamee orchestrated a near-180 degree turnaround in her short time with BC. The year before she arrived, the Eagles strung together a woeful 7-23 overall record, including going 2-14 in the ACC. But with her sights set high and her trust firmly grounded her players, the gears began to turn.

B

ernabei-McNamee built the program turnaround on the foundation of “why.” 

“What is your why?” is a question she asks every player on her team. “What truly inspires you? What makes you go hard on the days you don’t feel like going hard?”

For Berbabei-McNamee, the answer to her “why” is simple: love. 

“I am just so passionate about the game of basketball,” she said. “It truly was my first love. You know, when you’re growing up as a kid and when you first fell in love. I can truly say I first fell in love with basketball.”

“What is your why? What truly inspires you? What makes you go hard on the days you don’t feel like going hard?” Joanna Bernabei-McNamee

That love stuck with her all through her own college career at West Liberty State. It found its way into every aspect of her life. From the hardwood of Conte Forum to the hoop for her kids at her home, Bernabei-McNamee eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. 

“The game is my family and my love for them,” she said, speaking of both her nuclear family and of the family she has found at BC. 

The familial love from coach to player is by no means a one-way affair. As a second-year player for the Eagles, Garraud was a newcomer to the Heights right alongside her head coach, so when she talks about Bernabei-McNamee, it’s as if she’s talking about a member of her own family. 

“Even now, she’s still calling us, checking on us, making sure we’re doing what we need to do,” Garraud said. “She won’t let us slip up.”

T

o Bernabei-McNamee, being a coach doesn’t stop when the uniforms are hung up and the stands are empty, which is part of what has made her team so successful as of late. She’s working to not only form her team as athletes, but as individuals ready for the world they’ll meet outside of BC. But it starts on the court.

“From day one, she instilled all these rules because she knew that discipline was important to getting where we want to go,” Garraud said.

As a part of that mentality, Garraud said Bernabei-McNamee taught the players to work harder and never be satisfied, both on and off the court. That attitude was the backbone for the team’s resilience in some hard-fought wins this year. The squad proved to be worth its weight in gold as it took down a ranked opponent in Florida State, swept Notre Dame for the first time ever, and crashed its way onto the national stage with a program-record 11 ACC wins. 

Funny enough, a lot of the team’s biggest wins this year—Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame, to name a few—came on the road. 

“I thought it showed a lot of resilience,” Bernabei-McNamee said of the road wins. “But wins on big road trips also showed how much we really do enjoy each other. … It means we like spending time together, and I think sometimes, that’s what other teams are missing.”

In addition to the resilience, drive, discipline, and character that Bernabei-McNamee strives to foster in her student-athletes every day, she has created a team environment with comradery rivaled by the likes of LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love circa 2016. 

This year’s sophomores—Garraud, Makayla Dickens, Taylor Soule, and Clara Ford—her first ever freshman class and often the core of her starting five, have shown that Bernabei-McNamee’s ability to foster incredible growth on the court. Their impact on the stat sheet rocketed up from year one to year two, but the improvement doesn’t stop there. 

Despite being known as an elite recruiter, according to her introductory press release, Bernabei-McNamee didn’t get to choose her first team at BC. (Regardless, she describes her players as “high-character players and individuals.”) But as her time on the Heights grows, so does her impact.

Bernabei-McNamee has begun laying the groundwork for a long future of success at BC, and her recruiting prowess is a big factor in that future. With the acquisition of sophomore transfer Cameron Swartz before this season, and a highly touted five-star recruit in incoming freshman JoJo Lacey, among others, Bernabei-McNamee’s legacy—still very much in its infancy—is secure for years to come. 

“We are all on the same team,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “Their success is my success, and vice versa. We’re in this together.”

Featured Image by Kait Devir / Heights Staff

Images by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor and Leo Wang / Heights Staff

print

About Emma Healy