After beating then-No. 14 Florida State in Tallahassee all the way back on Jan. 30, Boston College women’s basketball head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee was the last person to enter the locker room. Clutching a yellow Powerade from the press conference, she was ambushed by a hoard of BC players who unloaded the contents of their water bottles on her as if they were full of champagne.
She and the team jumped around in celebration of knocking off the Eagles’ first ranked opponent since 2015. And though it was a special moment for the team, such celebrations were not in short supply this season.
With all the celebrations came broken records and plenty of accolades to go around, including Bernabei-McNamee earning ACC Coach of the Year honors. No BC coach has won the award since the famed Cathy Inglese in the 1998-99 season, the year BC made a trip to the NCAA tournament for the very first time.
Bernabei-McNamee earned the award on the back of a record-breaking season after facilitating a complete turnaround in her second year on the Heights. Before she arrived, the Eagles went just 7-23 overall and 2-14 in the ACC. Then, in the 2018-19 season, the team compiled a record of 14-16, including 3-13 in the conference. But the 2020 season has been one for the ages. The Eagles went 20-12 and 11-7 in the conference, shattering the former program record of seven ACC wins in a single season.
But Bernabei-McNamee’s journey to becoming a head coach at a well-known Division I basketball program was unusual and included lots of movement in her two-decade-long career. She began as an assistant coach at Eastern Kentucky straight out of college. From there, she made the jump to Division II with West Virginia Wesleyan, returning to her home state for a brief period. There, the Weirton, W.V. native was the youngest college head coach in the country at the time and coached the Bobcats to an 18-10 record in her one year at the helm. She then headed back to Eastern Kentucky for a two-year stint.
She then jumped around as an assistant coach in Division I programs including West Virginia and Maryland—the latter of which won the 2006 NCAA tournament while she coached. She returned to West Virginia as an assistant once more in 2008.
In 2013, Bernabei-McNamee earned the head coaching job at the University of Pikeville, where she coached the team to a 63-26 record in her tenure, including a 2015-16 Final Four appearance. After her success at Pikeville, she was called up to be the head coach at Albany, where she stayed for two years.
Bernabei-McNamee’s success throughout the first 20 years of her career turned heads around the league, and she accepted a job at BC for the 2018-19 season. Her ability to read defenses and call plays accordingly has helped the Eagles greatly in her time on the Heights.
Exhibit A: Seeing that Notre Dame was leaving the paint open and guarding mostly behind the arc, Bernabei-McNamee called the play that led to Emma Guy’s buzzer-beating layup to topple the Irish and tie the program record for ACC wins.
Not only did Bernabei-McNamee’s squad break the program record, but it also shattered all preseason expectations. Both the ACC Coaches’ Preseason Poll and the Blue Ribbon Panel pinned BC at No. 13 out of 15 in the conference. But BC entered the ACC tournament last week in the sixth seed position and tied for fourth-best record in the conference, and the Eagles upset No. 3 Duke to earn a semifinal spot for the first time in a decade.
The Eagles also await their fate on Selection Monday—with a strong showing in the conference tournament led by coach Bernabei-McNamee, BC has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. The upset against Duke in the quarterfinals was enough to turn heads, but is it enough to convince the selection committee that Bernabei-McNamee has earned her team a spot in the big dance? BC—and the rest of the basketball world—will just have to wait and see.
Featured Image by Kait Devir / Heights Staff