New coach, same dream: Experienced Northeastern women’s basketball team chases March Madness
After earning a share of the regular-season title but losing in the CAA tournament, Northeastern’s top players rejected transfer opportunities. “They had unfinished business,” says new coach Priscilla Edwards-Lloyd.
Photo by Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics
A new women’s basketball coach was coming to Northeastern and senior forward Deja Bristol didn’t know what to expect. Which was strange, given that nine of the top 10 scorers were returning from the Northeastern women’s basketball team that had closed with a month-long winning streak to tie for the conference title last season.
“I was mostly nervous, I’m not going to lie to you,” says Bristol, the reigning sixth player of the year in the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA). “Because I didn’t really know what I was going to get.”The preseason impressions of new coach Priscilla Edwards-Lloyd have been promising, reports Bristol. And rival coaches share in that optimism: They’ve picked the Huskies to finish among the CAA’s top three while naming senior point guard Derin Erdogan (first team) and junior shooting guard Gemima Motema (second team) as preseason All-CAA picks.
The Huskies launch the season Monday, Nov. 6, at Stonehill, followed by their home opener at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, against University of Massachusetts (streaming on FloHoops).
It’s an interesting experiment, marrying an accomplished team with a first-year head coach. Edwards-Lloyd understands expectations are high as the Huskies seek their first NCAA tournament bid since 1999 — the lone March Madness appearance in the program’s 57-year history.
“I’ve been approaching it the same way I would have whether we are coming off of a really successful year or a really bad year,” says Edwards-Lloyd, a former point guard at St. Bonaventure (2004-09) who has worked as an assistant at her alma mater, St. John’s, Providence College and Clemson. “A big part of college athletics and basketball is to get players to understand that it’s not always results-driven.
“There’s a process to the things that you’re doing. And if you follow it and you’re patient with it, you’re diligent with it and you stay at it, you’re going to be able to achieve things that maybe you didn’t think you would be able to.”
The Huskies were trending toward a fourth straight losing season when a nine-game winning streak rewarded the program with its first share of the CAA regular-season women’s basketball title. The dream abruptly ended when the third-seeded Huskies were upset in the CAA tournament semifinal by seventh-seeded Monmouth. Weeks later came another jarring surprise when second-year coach Bridgette Mitchell departed for Fordham.
Bristol and her teammates could only hope that their next coach would work with them to build upon last season’s breakthrough.
“We really hit the jackpot,” says Bristol, a 6-foot-1-inch forward entering her final season. “We’re actually really, really lucky here and I think that will show in our gameplay. Because this is a coach that everyone will run through a brick wall for.”
Why did everyone stay?
“Our team was looking for a more nurturing coach, one that develops us as women and not only as basketball players,” Bristol says. “We wanted a coach that would use our different strengths and apply them to our team. Last year, even though we had success, we could have done better if we played to our strengths a little more.”
Edwards-Lloyd could have relied on tape of last season’s games to learn what worked and what didn’t. But she felt a deeper level of understanding was needed.
“I remember we sat in that first meeting and she had a notepad, taking notes on what we were saying,” Bristol says. “She was allowing us to be honest. So it was really nice and really refreshing.
“We met her in April and now we’re seeing her continue to apply the things that she wrote down and that she heard us say. It’s just really helpful. It brings up the team morale.”
The lone player among their top 10 scorers to not return is JaMiya Braxton, a graduate student who averaged 9.9 points while exhausting her eligibility last season. None of their team leaders moved to other programs — a surprising commitment in this era of widespread transfers throughout college sports. Why did everyone stay amid the coaching change?
“I asked them that when I first met them,” Edwards-Lloyd says. “Many of them said they love this university and they love their teammates, they love Boston. You have hobbies outside of basketball, you’re getting a great education, you’re filling your cup in a lot of ways — and basketball is the icing on top of that. They felt like they had unfinished business basketball-wise and they wanted to do it together.”
The Edwards-Lloyd mantra for her players is winners, scholars, leaders. “The more that players can see you as a normal person, the more you become human to them and they don’t look at the decisions that you make that are challenging as a knock on them,” Edwards-Lloyd says of her approach, which she defines as people-centric. “Then it becomes, ‘I know why she asked me to do this and I know she’s also out for my best interest.’ I know it doesn’t always work that way — but I find that in this modern day of coaching, you have a lot more success when you come from that standpoint.”
There’s a process to the things that you’re doing. And if you follow it and you’re patient with it, you’re diligent with it and you stay at it, you’re going to be able to achieve things that maybe you didn’t think you would be able to.Edwards-Lloyd, a former point guard at St. Bonaventure (2004-09)
Two months of conversations between the players and their new coaching staff preceded the team’s informal workouts that began on July 2 — four months before the season.
“When you’re working in any type of organization, you have to be connected, you have to be on the same page, you have to be able to communicate,” Edwards-Lloyd says. “We spent a lot of time having conversations, difficult conversations, challenging them to talk about things that in the past maybe they just kind of disregarded.”
Based on that foundation, she began last summer to help the players learn a new offense based on their understanding and trust in each other.
New coach ‘takes her time to teach’
The Huskies will be employing a read-and-react offense this season. In most cases they won’t be looking to the sideline waiting for their new coach to call a play. Instead each player will be tasked with responding to the defense while working together to exploit the opponents’ weaknesses.
It is the highest form of basketball communication — relying on actions rather than words.
“I love it,” Erdogan says.
The promise of the new offense has much to do with having the CAA’s best point guard. It’s the same fluid style she has played with the Turkish national team. Erdogan averaged 5 points in 10.7 minutes while making her senior team debut for Turkey (1-2) at Eurobasket in June in Slovenia.
“I love to be creative,” Erdogan says. “I love to read defense and create something out of it and not do the same thing every time.”
In Erdogan’s first season at Northeastern, the Arizona transfer averaged 15 points and 4 assists per game while making the All-CAA first team last year. She forms a dynamic backcourt with Motema, who averaged 12.6 points per game last season while making the All-CAA third team as well as the conference’s all-defensive team.
“Coach Priscilla takes her time to teach,” Erdogan says of the coach’s efforts to install the new offense. “She’s really patient and I think that helps the team a lot.”
The deep Huskies are welcoming back senior guard Maddie Vizza, sidelined for most of last season by a torn ACL. “I guess I bring a different kind of perspective,” says Vizza, who has played in nine games over the past two seasons. “You want to give 110% every time because you don’t know when your last game could potentially be. You want to give in every area that you possibly can.”
Then there’s Bristol, who is “the heart of a lot of the things we do — our toughness, our physicality, our paint presence,” Edwards-Lloyd says.
Bristol had her break-out year while the Huskies were coming together as a team. Edwards-Lloyd wants her to build on that success by stepping out for midrange jumpers.
“I’m hoping to gain more confidence in my abilities, be able to stretch the floor a little more — and just step into my role as a leader and do better for my teammates,” Bristol says. “Last year was the biggest role I’ve had in my career and I’m just glad I was able to do something positive with it and make a difference. So I’m excited to build on that and keep growing, keep being a leader and keep learning about myself and my game.
“It benefits us that we’re bringing back the same group essentially and we have the same core values. Now it’s just under a different staff that’s been very nurturing and guiding us in the right direction.”
Last year, fed up with losing, the Huskies put their foot down. “We knew what we had,” Bristol says. “We just had to have a sit-down and get together and be like, ‘Guys, we can’t lose anymore. Like let’s get this thing done.’”
Now those get-it-done conversations are focused on an array of goals that include CAA regular-season and tournament titles, building strong relationships among teammates and coaches, excelling academically and altogether enjoying this season of optimism.
“Once they told us what the goals were and why they wanted those to be the goals, we asked for their permission to coach them to that — and they agreed,” Edwards-Lloyd says. “So every day from that moment on it became, ‘These are your goals. This is what you want to accomplish and you ask for our help to do it. To the best of our ability we’re going to help you get there.’”