WEST POINT – If you have any business this week with Dave Magarity, best you should revise your appointment book. Magarity is busy.
“It’s been really special,” the Army head coach said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a team that was this focused.”
And the reward is that for the first time in eight years – and for only the second time in team history – the Army women’s basketball team will be appearing in the NCAA tournament. Army, the No. 13 seed in the Louisville Region, will play No. 4 seed Maryland Sunday at the Terrapins’ home court, Comcast Center. No, there doesn’t figure to be any extensive amount of money laid on the Black Knights, but if anyone had gambled on Army winning the Patriot League tournament, they’ve likely already packed for their vacation to Waikiki.
Navy had won three straight league tournaments, and a fourth seemed likely. But when Holy Cross upset the Midshipmen in the league semifinals, not only did it rid the Black Knights of the league’s best team, but it permitted Army to host the championship game; Army won 68-58 to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
What bothers Magarity is how low both his team and Maryland were seeded. He anticipated his team to enjoy at least a No. 12 seed and Maryland to land at No. 3, perhaps No. 2. Such a seeding would have kept the Black Knights from playing against Maryland on its home court. And Army would have likely played a team against which it has a better player-to-player matchup.
Instead, Army – with only a semi-productive front court – will play a team whose strength is up front, particularly guard/forward Alyssa Thomas. A 6-foot-2 senior and 3-time ACC player of the year, she’s averaged 18.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and leads the NCAA with 22 double-doubles. With four triple-doubles this season, she is one of only four players in NCAA history with at least six in her career.
“I think we’re going to have to play really well,” Magarity said. “I’m not saying we have to play a perfect game, but if we are not really efficient and do a bad job boxing out and preventing those second shots that’ll really hurt us. If we don’t execute our offense in the half court and get back we’re in trouble. They have unbelievable size on the front line, outstanding athleticism.”
As for Thomas, he said, “She’s one of the best players in the country. When she gets a rebound, she’s not looking around. She’s going to go right up with it. She’s like Magic Johnson. It’s going to be hard because we don’t have the overall team size or quickness. We’re very limited in terms of athleticism and we haven’t gotten a lot of production from our front line. It’s been abysmal in terms of the scoring. But as for me having a go-to player inside, no. That’s one of the reasons I shake my head and say, ‘How the hell did we win 25 games?’ ”
Army’s offense revolves around the aim-and-fire shooting of 5-foot-8 sophomore guard Kelly Minato, whose 21.7 points per game lead the team. Despite her status as the two-time Patriot League player of the year, Magarity said, “You look at her and you swear she just stepped off a CYO game. She’s the best female player I’ve ever coached. We got off to a slow start in the championship game [against Holy Cross] and we got into some foul trouble early, so what does she do? She drops in 31 points.”
In his seventh year as Army head coach, Magarity had his team pick up where it left off when Maggie Dixon, whose 2005-6 team reached the tournament for the first time, died of heart arrhythmia. Magarity had been Dixon’s associate head coach for one season before her death. He’s compiled a record of 121-89, including 25-3 this season. Prior to his success at Army, his likely best accomplishment came as head coach at Marist, where he had the opportunity to coach 7-4 center Rik Smits, who in 1988 was the second player chosen in the NBA draft.
If there is one experience that might have given Army further cause to come together as a team, it didn’t come on the court. On Feb. 5, on its way to a hotel prior to a game against Lehigh, the team bus was rear-ended by a tractor trailer. There were a few bumps and bruises, some sore necks and everyone on the bus was taken to area hospitals as a precaution; they were all soon released.
“It was a scary experience,” Magarity said. “Everybody was a little shaken by it. It may have made them a little more focused, that’s a good point. It was really scary.”
Magarity is one of just four active Division I women's basketball coaches to make the transition from the men's side to coaching women. The short list also includes Paul Westhead (Oregon); Alan LeForce (Coastal Carolina); and Dennis Wolfe (Virginia Tech). Magarity and Westhead are the only two coaches who have delivered teams to both the men’s and women’s tournament..
"I have had many opportunities to bring men's teams that I coached to West Point, and I have always held a strong feeling for the academy as an outsider," Magarity said when he took over at Army. "To be given this opportunity is one of the most special gifts that I could receive as a coach. The commitment and dedication to excellence here is outstanding. I am honored to be a part of this great tradition."
If you want to recruit players who will likely be NBA draftees in a year or two, or make regular trips to the Final Four and be on a first-name basis with Jim Nantz and Greg Gumbel, do your best to land on a men’s program in the Big East or Big 10 or ACC. If you want to coach – that is, make step-by-step game plans and instruct players in the fundamentals and be pleased when they execute a 3-on-2 break without the ball ever touching the floor – leading the way for Army basketball should be among your prospective landing sites.
“It's been something," Magarity said.