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UAlbany's new basketball coach took a risk stepping away from game

UAlbany's new basketball coach took a risk stepping away from game

Joanna Bernabei-McNamee introduced as new women's basketball coach.
UAlbany's new basketball coach took a risk stepping away from game
New UAlbany women's basketball head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee speaks on stage at SEFCU Arena after being introduced on Friday morning April 22, 2016.
Photographer: Erica Miller

Joanna Bernabei-McNamee has skydiving on her bucket list. The new University at Albany women’s basketball coach runs a “fast, high-octane” offense, and a pressuring defense.

Yes, she is a risk-taker.

But the biggest gamble she ever took came in 2009, when she walked away from a Division I assistant job to raise her two young sons born 11 months apart. And when she returned to the ranks in 2013, it was at the NAIA level — think the equivalent of Division II — with a head coaching job at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky.

There were no assurances she would ever get back to Division I, let alone as a head coach.

Yet there she stood on a stage Friday at SEFCU Arena for a production of an introduction as the new Great Danes coach. Cheerleaders and dance team members were there, as were significant contingents of media, fellow UAlbany coaches from other sports and fans. Her sons Luke, 9, and Caden, 8, sat in the front row with her husband, Joe.

The coach of the Great Danes’ women’s team is a bigger deal now that it was when Katie Abrahamson-Henderson arrived six years ago to take over a losing program. Abrahamson-Henderson, who left earlier this month to go to Central Florida, had a lot to do with that, winning the last five America East tournament titles.

Joe McNamee, who is in the pharmaceutical industry, had repeatedly said, “I married a basketball coach.” But with two young children born 11 months apartment, the coach felt she had to step away from the game seven years ago until her boys entered school.

“At that point in my life, for me as a mom, it was a no-brainer,” she said Friday. “It was funny, because I never thought I would be that woman.”

And when she returned, it was not at the Division I level but at a losing NAIA school that she turned into a power, one that reached the Fab Four this year.

“Getting into Pikeville was a good almost middle-ground, to get my feet back in a way, to embrace the coaching world again,” she said. “But I am ready for this.”

UAlbany athletic director Mark Benson said McNamee stepping away from the game turned out not to be a blight on McNamee’s resume, but rather an asset.

“To me, that says a lot about the high-character and the conviction to stick with your principles,” Benson said. “That is a big risk, stepping away the game. You may get back in it, and you may not.”

“Coach Mac” served as an assistant and recruiting coordinator on Maryland’s 2006 national championship team, in addition to other stops in a 10-year Division I career. A record-setting Division II point guard at West Liberty, she arrives in Albany after three seasons at Pikeville, where she led the program to 26 wins this past season and an NAIA Fab Four appearance. The 2016 Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) NAIA Regional Coach of the Year and 2015 Mid-South Conference Coach of the Year won 63 games at UPike in three seasons.

McNamee takes over a program that went from also-ran to a dynasty under Abrahamson-Henderson, coming just as the program’s most successful coach and its greatest player — three-time America East Player of the Year Shereesha Richards — depart. In the past five seasons the Great Danes have won five America East tournament titles and four regular season titles, and this spring notched its first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament win, upsetting Florida.

“This is not a job for everybody. We are coming off a lot of success,” Benson said. “Not everybody is ready to embrace that challenge. . . . Coach Mac has won at every level all the way up to the pinnacle of Division I.”

McNamee said she has endured only two losing seasons in basketball: her first, as a 6-year-old, and in her first year in Pikeville, which tripled its win total from the previous year.

“I know I have big shoes to fill,” she said. “Pressure for a basketball coach is generally a cool thing.”

She is confident she can meet the challenges on the court. McNamee’s playing style is reminiscent, but will not replicate, that of Abrahamson-Henderson. “I fell like it’s pretty similar all around,” guard Imani Tate said. “We will be running a lot more — and we ran a lot under Coach Abe.”

If McNamee does feel pressure, it’s not from replacing a highly successful coach, but rather representing women returning to the workplace after leaving to care for children. She thanked UAlbany for that opportunity.

“I don’t know that everybody would be willing to give me this chance,” she said. “I think it speaks to working women everywhere that you can get back in and you can be successful, and that’s one of the things that I probably have a little more riding on this job.

“I’m not going to mess it up. I’m not going to let you guys down.”

RICHARDS HEADING OVERSEAS

After upending draft experts’ predictions and not being selected in the recent WNBA Draft, and no team inviting her in for a tryout, Richards is now preparing to play overseas.

She has no idea where she is headed.

“I don’t know,” the senior said. “There are so many good places.”

For now, she is taking it easy.

“I’m just going to take a break,” she said. “I’m looking forward to graduation, looking forward to getting my body healed up.”

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