Bring the ball up the court. Set a couple screens to get Kelly Hughes or Nicole Boudreau open. Get one of them the ball. Pray she makes it. Repeat.
That’s the formula Boston College women’s basketball has run with the past couple years.
It makes sense, since relying on threes is one of the easiest things you can do in basketball. Not to say making them is easy—reliable shooters must have steady hands, strong legs, and innumerable hours logged in the gym. But if you don’t have size, if you don’t have strength, if you don’t have the skill to break through some of the best defenses in the country, putting up 3-point shots beyond the arc is just about the only option you got. And hey, you get an extra point for doing it.
Fortunately for the Eagles, they have the “Splash Sisters,” a self-proclaimed name by the trio of Emilee Daley, Boudreau, and Hughes. Last season, the three combined to shoot 37 percent from 3-point range and made 197 of the team’s 240 threes, a figure that placed the team at 12th in the country and first in the ACC.
The 3-pointer is what allowed BC to upset No. 15 Duke last season—39 of the Eagles’ 60 points came from the triple, while the Blue Devils made just two of 11. Their explosiveness will put BC’s competition on upset alert again this season, but it’s not what will get them over the hump of mediocrity. After BC broke its own 3-point record for each of the past several years, head coach Erik Johnson wants his team to start taking a more challenging path.
“I hope we don’t break it,” Johnson said, laughing. “We were too homogeneous last year. We were one-dimensional.”
After three years of specialization in the Johnson era, that one-dimensional offense is finally ready to expand. Enter Mariella Fasoula, the 6-foot-4 freshman from Greece, and fellow center, 6-foot-3 Katie Quandt, who are on a joint mission to control the paint.
Quandt started off a little slow in her first year on the Heights last season, but she eventually came into her own. She started the last seven games for BC, averaging 24 minutes, 7.3 points, and 4.0 rebounds a game in that stretch. When Quandt wasn’t on the court, however, the Eagles relied on Karima Gabriel and Alexa Coulombe—both 6-foot-2 forwards—to play as undersized fives.
Because of its lack of size, BC struggled with several aspects of its inside game—the most notable, getting boards and points inside. The Eagles outrebounded their ACC opponents in just two of 16 games, and at times had fewer defensive boards than their opponents had offensive.
With the addition of Fasoula, BC gets a center with experience playing for the Greek national team. She will likely need some time to fully adapt to the college game, but at the very least, she provides a frame that will allow the Eagles to improve inside. At best, she has the potential to be a go-to player and top rebounder in the post for BC for several years to come.
Meanwhile, BC has also improved its ability to drive. Sophomore Martina Mosetti and freshman Stephanie Jones, both quick and solid point guards, will split time bringing up the ball. Two players who redshirted last season, Kailey Edwards and Ella Ewobajo, are both slashing forwards that Johnson is excited to see take the court at BC, which should address another glaring weakness for the Eagles last season: getting to the line.
BC took about four fewer foul shots per game than its opponents last season, and took 200 fewer total shots from the line than the average team in the ACC. These numbers are even harder to swallow because of BC’s shooting ability—the team shot 72.1 percent from the line last season, good for fifth in the ACC.
“If the opponent is shooting way more foul shots than you are shooting, that’s a problem. But that’s a product of settling for shots.”
Make no mistake, this is still a 3-point-shooting team. Ever since Hughes first laced up her Under Armour high tops, the Eagles became a team that loves playing beyond the arc. Now, they finally look ready to try a little something new, something that could allow them to exceed expectations for the second year in a row.
While the ultimate goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament, a trip the Eagles haven’t made since 2006 (the first year BC competed in the ACC), a WNIT berth is certainly not a far stretch. BC last reached that tournament in 2011 by going 20-12 and 5-9 in the ACC. The thing is, an invite to the NCAA isn’t even as far of a reach as you may think. Although the talent-abundant conference has made for a more challenging schedule, it does widen the tournament window—the top eight teams in the conference made the NCAA Tourney last season, and the lowest seed, Miami, finished 8-8 in-conference and 20-13 overall. With three more ACC wins last season, BC would have been in the conversation. You might want to get ready to start talking about them this year.
“My biggest goal since I’ve gotten here, that realistically I haven’t thought was possible until now, is to make the NCAA Tournament,” Boudreau said. “I think with this team, that we’ve come together, and I think it’s really possible.”
While he watches his team practice, Johnson doesn’t stand still. The head coach paces back and forth in the middle of Power Gym, wearing down the half court line as he surveys his team. The overall image isn’t unlike the one we painted last year: a coach watching his team hustle through its various drills without the need for constant encouragement. The coaching staff had previously needed to provide the energy for the team, Johnson said last November, but now the girls were taking it upon themselves.
Everything isn’t the same, though. Last year’s team was supposed to be the one that pushed itself and built up a positive, competitive culture, not the one riddled with off-court issues and punishments midway through conference play.
“I was shocked that we had off-court issues last year,” Johnson said.
In reflecting back on the suspensions he doled out—Lauren Engeln was removed from the team, while Boudreau and Kat Cooper were each suspended one game—Johnson’s first thoughts dart to UConn. Of course, every women’s basketball coach at the D-I level—or any level, really—should be thinking about the Huskies. They’ve gone undefeated in four seasons since 2000 and have won the NCAA championship more times than not in those 16 seasons. They’re in a league above the rest with Notre Dame, Stanford, and Baylor—a quartet that has filled almost two-thirds of the Final Four spots in the last eight years.
But it’s not even the talent of those squads that Johnson envies the most—it’s their overall focus and work ethic. “There’s no baloney,” he said. “You know, when you’re building culture, you want to minimize drama. We have to start as a coaching staff to set that tone. If kids are going to act in certain ways that clearly defy it, hey, suspensions are things that have to follow.”
But the drama—or at least the drama visible to the outside world—didn’t come from the two younger classes, which combined for 64 percent of BC’s minutes and 76 percent of the starts in conference play. Rather, they were all players that had several years of college experience. Engeln, a transfer from UConn, was a fifth-year senior. Cooper, who lost most of her sophomore year to a knee injury, was a redshirt junior. Although Johnson never referred to a frustration with playing time as a factor in the team’s shortcomings last season, both had seen significant cuts to make room on the court for the underclassmen—Engeln saw her minutes slashed by two-thirds and started just five of 22 games compared to 31 the year before, while Cooper got just half the minutes and three versus 25 starts.
With the arrival of a second true center this year, it’s likely Gabriel also would have had her playing time reduced, which would explain her transfer to Cal State Fullerton this summer. Cooper also transferred this summer—to Oregon—and Engeln maxed out on her eligibility.
Then there’s Boudreau, the only returning player who faced punishment last year. She’s also the only four-year starter on the roster, someone that BC needs on the court as much as possible, and one of the few players left that came in to BC with Johnson. The pair are both passionate and strong-willed—traits they’ve recognized about themselves.
“Last year, I didn’t wanna ask for help,” Boudreau said. “I kinda just wanted to do it on my own.”
This year, she doesn’t have to. Coulombe—or Mama Lex, as she’s known on the team—will serve as a co-captain this season. And although she doesn’t fill up the statline in the same way her partner does on a given night, her teammates know how much she cares. That makes them listen.
“She keeps me grounded a lot,” Boudreau said. “We’re kind of like the angel and devil—we have two different skillsets, and she balances me out. She makes it a lot easier for me.”
Meanwhile, Johnson has also realized the need to take a step back.
“I had to take a hard look at myself and the ways that I was building relationships with them, building trust, gaining buy-in,” he said. “I accept responsibility, too—this is happening on my watch.”
In casting down the suspensions, Johnson made it clear that the rules aren’t merely suggestions for how his players should act. He has firm beliefs about what his team should value, and those aren’t going to change. But this past year has made him more open to discussions with his team. Rather than just telling his players what their values should be, he has tried to get them to embrace their values together with his own.
“If kids are going to act in certain ways that clearly defy [the rules], hey, suspensions are things that have to follow,” Johnson said “[But] what you’re seeing now is a group that’s like, ‘we’re not going down those roads.’ And they’re policing each other.”
They also seem to be fully behind their coach, individually echoing the same buzzwords he preached: “accountable,” “responsible,” “toughness,” “team.” Both Fasoula and Quandt praised his ability to be a great coach on and off the court, citing examples of dinners at his house, mini golf outings over the summer, and individual coffees to see how his players are doing.
“I think it’s more of just the little gestures that he does,” Quandt said. “He doesn’t have to be all extravagant to show that he cares.”
It has been Johnson’s goal to make his players see how much he cares. That, along with aligning their values, is what he believes will truly keep them bought into the process. If he’s wrong, if he can’t get his girls to buy in for a full season, if he again has to dole out suspensions this year because of off-court issues, he may never become the coach that makes BC competitive in the ACC. But if this is the year they stay committed (and they keep dropping threes), this will be the first team in the Johnson era to receive a tournament invitation.