Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Mountain MacGillivray likes where his program’s at.
The La Salle women’s basketball head coach, a Philadelphia native and former Quinnipiac assistant, is entering the fourth year of his first D-I head coaching gig, and is plenty optimistic that this winter is the one that sees the Explorers really turn a corner.
One of the youngest teams in D-I women’s hoops last year by both average player age and collegiate experience, La Salle is coming off a 12-14 (7-10 Atlantic 10) season that saw them lose seven games by six points or fewer. With their top three scorers back amongst a group of returning rotation members and a few other new faces, La Salle has its sights set on its first winning season since going 17-13 in 2016-17, the program’s only time above .500 since 2006-07.
The Explorers’ 2021-22 roster features junior Claire Jacobs, a 6-0 guard from Perth, Australia, who averaged 16.3 ppg and 4.5 rpg last year, as well as Kayla Spruill, a 6-0 wing forward from Baltimore who was the team’s second-leading scorer (15.0 ppg) and its leading rebounder (6.1 rpg). Also back are Molly Masciantonio (7.7 ppg), Jacobs’ sister Amy Jacobs (4.5 ppg) and Jaye Haynes (3.1 ppg), along with several others who got a taste of college action a year ago.
CoBL spoke to MacGillivray at the end of June for an update on his squad, how they handled the pandemic season, and his early thoughts about 2021-22 as his program begins its preparations for the fall. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
La Salle coach Mountain MacGillivaray (above) enters his fourth year at 20th and Olney. (Photo courtesy: Sideline Photos)
City of Basketball Love: Going into your fourth year at La Salle, returning your top four starters, what’s the overall feeling or atmosphere around the program as you begin your preparations for the 2021-22 season?
Mountain MacGillivray: We’re super-excited to get to work, seven of our kids are on campus; started some workouts this week. We had the youngest team in the country last year, so now we’re older, those kids are returning, we’ve got some fresh faces in who can really play and compete, and we’re looking to take the next step forward.
CoBL: When you came to La Salle, back to Philadelphia, from Quinnipiac, did you have a five-year plan? A year-by-year plan? What was your attitude when you first took the program in terms of rebuilding it?
MM: The attitude is probably the same all the time: just to create the best experience I can for our student-athletes, and put them into a competitive situation where they can be their best. We try to do that every year, and if you do that consistently, you’ll have a happy group of kids who recruit themselves to attract other players and you’ll have a pretty good product on the floor. We didn’t put a timeline on it, but I like where we are right now.
CoBL: If you had to grade yourself on the first three years, what grade would you give yourself thus far?
MM: I’ll take an A-plus. [Laughs]. I think we really overachieved in our first year, it was one of the bigger challenges I’ve been part of as a coach. Our staff really did a great job of making it a positive experience for our players, and we found a way to win six games and I think that was a monumental accomplishment. Really like the steps that we took in Year Two, I think we had a lot of new faces, a real infusion of talent and we doubled our win total in Year Two. In Year Three, we had an incredibly young team that I think if we would have had our full complement of games would have had its first winning season in a few years, but as it was we found a way to win a conference tournament game, finish ahead of where we were predicted each of the first three years. Really pleased with the direction it’s going.
CoBL: In regards to the pandemic, you have quite an international roster. Did that present any specific issues in terms of getting together as a team?
MM: Our having an international roster didn’t have any effect; the pandemic itself was a problem for the same here at La Salle as it was for everybody. We couldn’t spend time together outside of basketball, you had to mitigate your risk at every turn or you were going to lose your season. Our team did a good job at it but we did lose a little chemistry and team bonding. But that didn’t put us in a different position from anybody else, that was everybody across the country.
CoBL: Where did the international flair develop in terms of recruiting?
MM: When I was at Quinnipiac at University, someone called me about a kid from Ireland and said I should take a look at her, so I went to the European championships, watched her play, found another kid while I was there who ended up coming and playing with us, and from there it’s been an area where I’ve looked. There’s an entire globe of players who can play, we’re not going to limit ourselves to any one area.
CoBL: So when you have players on the roster from Australia, Latvia, one coming in from Canada, from all around the United States, how do those different experiences come together on the team?
MM: I think having a variety of backgrounds on your team adds to each of the players on your team, just knowledge of the world, experience of different communities, and they certainly love listening to each other talk and making fun of the different way they say things.
CoBL: What’s been the most rewarding part of that for you as a coach?
MM: I’ve really enjoyed learning about some cultures that I’m not familiar with. One of the kids I recruited at Quinnipiac was Latvian, and so I’ve learned a little bit about Latvian culture that made me much more familiar in recruiting Jete, when I was talking to her. Australia, they play basketball a different way than they do here, so they’ve been able to share a lot of that, that’s been neat, and it’s neat to see people who grew up differently — but also, mostly, it’s neat to see how so many people do things the same, too.
CoBL: Like what?
MM: In all of those places, basketball players are valuing hard work, valuing being great teammates, so those things, they don’t have borders and they’re transcendent across. I don’t think any of them, where they are around the globe, are immune to TikTok. You get to see that sometimes things are different, but they’re actually the same, a lot of places, too.
CoBL: On the flip side of that, you’re from Philadelphia, coached at Archbishop Carroll before going off into the college ranks. You have a solid local presence on the roster as well. How important was that to have some Philly-area talent?
MM: It’s gigantic, I can’t say enough, the importance of having Molly and Jay and Michelle here, three local kids, they make people coming in from other areas feel like this is their home, because for them it is their home and they’re welcoming them into their home when they get here, and also having myself and Coach Day on staff, where this is where we grew up as well, I think that’s the piece that makes the kids who come from a distance feel like they belong, when they get welcomed into the home.
CoBL: As a Philadelphia native, and a Temple grad, what’s it like for you now being a Big 5 coach?
MM: I count my blessings every day that I have the opportunity to do what I love in the town that I love and with people that I love. And we’ve been fortunate that we’re able to attract a great group of young ladies that we get to work with who want to be great and work hard together and I don’t take any of the opportunities and those moments for granted because I really liked my other experiences, coaching other places, but there’s nothing like — well, one, coaching where you dreamt of coaching as a kid, when you started up in this game. I was here watching Johnny Miller coach these teams at La Salle and a couple of my high school friends all played here and I came and watched the games, it’s a dream come true being able to have this job and being in this position. To have all the other things fall around it, to have these players who want to be a part of it and who work their tail off to have success, and to see them start to have success, it's been great and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes in the years ahead.
CoBL: Turning our attention to this fall, this team. Claire Jacobs has been a huge contributor for the program the last two years. Did you have that level of expectation for her coming in as a freshman?
MM: Yeah, we knew she could play, we knew she could put the ball in the basket, and she didn’t disappoint in that regard at all from her freshman year. But her game has also grown by leaps and bounds and she really came into her own, playing much more defense and rebounding last year and started to move the ball and distribute a little bit more, and we expect another big jump from her this year.
CoBL: When you talk about someone who’s got a chance to be one of the better players in program history — fastest to 500 points, etc. Do you bring up the big picture with her or just focus on current improvement?
MM: I honestly could care less who the all-time leading scorer is or who could eventually be, that’s something we’re never talking about, fastest to 500. It’s a byproduct of doing things the right way, playing hard and playing together. She has put herself in a position, and Kayla Spruill as well, in some tight spots and big moments, we’re calling their number specifically, but for the most part, for 90 percent of the game, the ball finds who it finds. To Claire’s credit, she’s been able to be efficient and put the ball in the basket, but I don’t care which of the kids on the team scores the ball, I don’t care who rebounds it, and I don’t care who gets the stop, just as long as we do. And I think the team really embraces that approach. We are legitimately focusing on getting better today, and with that, good things happen down the road.
CoBL: I was going to ask if you were going to look for more of a consistent third scorer to step up, but it sounds like you prefer it this way, where there’s 7-8 different players who average similar numbers.
MM: If you see at some point during this season that we have four or five kids averaging in double figures, all around 9.8, 10, 11 points per game, I’ll be happier than if we have one kid averaging 17 and another averaging 15.
Those two produce at the level they produce because they’re efficient. Kayla shot close to 50 percent, Claire shot a high field-goal percentage and got to the free-throw line a ton, so that’s why they were our leading scorers. I’m expecting Amy and Molly and Jay to be more efficient, and as those numbers go up, their numbers go up and our whole team goes up.
CoBL: Of that next group: Molly, Jaye, the rest of your lineup, who do you think could be up for a nice step up in production?
MM: The offseason for us is just beginning, so summer II just started, nobody was here for Summer I. The team, I’m sure, is working their tail off and we got to see Molly and Jaye because they’ve come and did volunteer work with our strength coach every single day, but I can only assume that other kids are doing the same, we’re not checking up on them an holding their hand throughout the process, so I know they’re working. I’ll be able to tell you that better middle of the summer when they’re all on campus, who looks good, but Molly and Jaye, just seeing them as we started with the seven kids here this week, they physically look different, they’ve really impacted their bodies and I think that’s one of the things that hopefully everyone will see come November is a team that’s a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, a little bit faster.
CoBL: If there are a player or two who, if they take a big step forward, would really help the program, who would that be?
MM: The three that I mentioned that were next there, Molly and Amy and Jaye, if they improve on their offensive scoring numbers, that’s going to really impact our team. Also you’re going to have to see, Jete’s going to have to bear a lot of the burden at point, and you’re going to have to see a freshman and/or transfer out there, so that’s going to impact us and we’ll see how that goes. [Sophomore center] Michelle Kozicki was in and out, got hurt during the season, but she came in here really fit and in good shape and she looks good in our workouts, so we’re very small inside. If she can be productive offensively and on the glass, that’s going to have a major impact on our team.
CoBL: With your whole team moving forward, and it really being a full-team effort, now that they’re no longer the youngest team, how will that benefit you guys next year?
MM: I think it’s just part of a coaching philosophy that everybody has the green light, we try to play really fast and try to take the first available open shot, and then on the other end we play a pressure defensive system where everybody has to rely on each other. What I’ve found in the past doing this and certainly we saw this this year, the younger you are in the program, the harder it is for the team to have the highest-level success it can. Because everyone’s dependent on each other, so when one or two people are unsure of themselves or don’t know where they’re supposed to go yet, they’re figuring it out, you break down a little bit.
But as those teams mature, you can get to a level where you’re really tough to score on and you’re tough to guard because all of the pieces are fitting together. And that’s why I’m excited to take another step forward with so many kids on the roster, and if we get quality point guard play, which I expect we will, you should see a significant improvement from our team.
CoBL: When it comes to your basketball influences or styles, what other teams are you watching that you like what they’re doing?
MM: I’m always trying to pick and choose some items that you might be able to put in and wrinkle. The strong influences for me were Paul Westhead and John Chaney, who couldn’t be any more different in their approaches. From Westhead, I learned the value of scoring before the defense is set, it really creates much higher-efficient offense, and you can wear your opponents down if you go hard and you can play a lot of people and count on a lot of people. And Chaney was the direct opposite of that, but what I learned from him was if you can set your defense and make every possession a chore for the opponent and really take care of the ball on offense, you can have a lot of success. Last year we led the conference in turnover margin, that’s a staple of what we’re trying to build here, and for the first time in the three years we’ve been here, we did that, and so that showed me a huge step in the right direction of what we’re trying to accomplish, that we forced more turnovers than we committed, at a higher rate than anybody else in the Atlantic 10. We also played at the fastest pace in the Atlantic 10, so those two things are big signs that our program is going in the direction that we want it to go . How many wins that’s going to yield ultimately, we’ll find out, but there were some indications that we’re doing things the way we intend to do them.