Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
La Salle’s women’s basketball squad didn’t quite meet the high expectations it had for itself this past season, but the Explorers kept progressing forward in coach Mountain MacGillivray’s fifth season with a second straight winning campaign — the first time for the program since 2003-04.
A squad that brought back just about everybody and was tabbed second in the Atlantic 10 preseason won 17 games for just the second time since 2006-07, but also finished 8-7 in the league for eighth place before being bounced in their conference tournament opener for the second year in a row.
Forward Kayla Spruill (12.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg) ended her career with third team All-Atlantic 10 honors and several others put together solid campaigns. However, the Explorers head into this offseason knowing they will be without Spruill and seven of the other top eight members of the rotation, including all four of the team’s top scorers, heading into 2023-24 due graduation and the transfer portal.
Graduate guard Molly Masciantonio (6.0 ppg, 4.5 apg) leads the list of five returners — sophomore guard Julie Jekot, sophomore forward Emilee Tahata and freshman guards Fiona Connolly and Emma Egan — who will mix in a boatload of newcomers with five freshmen and likely a significant number of transfers on the way.
We talked to MacGillivray late last month as part of our series of City 6 Q+As; here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
La Salle women's basketball coach Mountain Mountain MacGillivray instructs from the sidelines during a game this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
City of Basketball Love: In this inbetween season here, you've had some time to reflect now, what are your thoughts on how this season went and what the team accomplished?
Mountain MacGillivray: I think there was a lot of optimism to start the year and I think we took another step forward, but maybe fell a little bit short of where we were hoping we would be. But that's all part of the growth process, and we're excited to take another step forward again next year.
CoBL: I was looking back, and I think it's the first time in close to 20 years that you guys had back-to-back winning seasons. What's that say about the kind of sustained growth you guys have had?
MM: I mean, I think it's 27 years, since we've done back to back winning seasons in the A-10. Or, or maybe it's back to back 16-or-more win seasons, so it's been great, but no one's wants to hang their hat on 16,17-win seasons here. It is what it is. We're going in the right direction, but we're not where we want to be.
CoBL: Do you guys have any idea what kind of core is going to be back next year? I know at the beginning of this season you said there were a lot of people with eligibility.
MM: We lose a decent amount to graduation but we have five returners, five coming in and should be potentially five players from a variety of different locations who will not be freshmen.
CoBL: You've been doing this for a long time. How much crazier has this time of year gotten now that the transfer portals become such a big part of everyone's programs?
MM: I think the COVID combined with the being able to not have to sit, the one-time transfer exception. Those two things have made it a little wild, but I think it should settle down a little bit once the COVID year is no longer a factor, which would be the end of next year. Next year is the last group of kids who have a fifth season. When you have a kid who decides to return, right, you're putting a player ahead of kids who were hoping they were going to play and now all of a sudden they realize they're not going to play because this kid’s there. And then on the other side of the spectrum when you have kids who have an extra year of eligibility, but they've already graduated and you were counting on them or thinking they might come back, held a spot for them, and they decide to move on, now coaches are looking for those spots. That extra year of eligibility is a big part of the musical chairs that we're seeing. It's been funny. I'm sure you're watching the tournament games, men's and women's, how many times have you heard about a team that's in the Sweet 16 or the Final Four, or the Elite Eight and they're like, ‘You know, they lost 78% of their scoring from last year and here they are in the Sweet 16.’ There's a lot of players moving around because they have an extra year or the kid for the kid with an extra year is coming back and now I don't want to be there again and not play.
CoBL: What do you have returning? Is there anyone you're expecting a big offseason? Obviously you lose a big piece in Kayla, so there's going to be some people that have to step up in a variety of ways.
MM: I think you should expect a jump from Emilee Tahata and Julie Jekot are two juniors. They both saw some action. Julie I think played in every game, and they're working their tail off now to put themselves in a really good position to be successful. Emilee's got a very similar game to Kayla's role. She handles the ball really well, a little bit better than Kayla did. And you know, it’s tough for anybody to shoot quite like Kayla did, but Emilee can shoot the ball and score from the perimeter. She was sidelined by injury, was late coming back, but like she's at her peak right now, and if she can stay healthy and continue to continue to grow her game, I think she should be in good shape. And then two of our freshmen, Fiona Connolly, who played in a backup role to Molly and Emma Egan, who played big minutes in our last win of the regular season against VCU and really came on strong late in the year, they both should have really impactful seasons next year.
CoBL: What did you think of the conference this year? Looking at the postseason, there were a couple small runs in the WNIT. How deep was the league this year?
MM: I think we fell back a little bit from where we were the year before. But there's a lot of themes in this conference that can find themselves on the doorstep of an at-large bid. And I don't know, there were years past — not real recent — but years past where the A-10 was getting two and three bids, and last year we had two this year, we only had one but a ton of teams in the WNIT. It looked like the Atlantic 10 Invitational. And you know a bunch of teams with winning records. And a team that came on late ends up winning the league. I mean, what was Saint Louis picked to finish 14th or 13th? And they win the league. So it's kind of an exciting time to be in the A-10. You know, Rhode Island is still going to be a beast at the top of the conference, but I think there's a lot of teams that really feel like they can play their way right into contention with LaSalle being one of them.
CoBL: You're heading into your sixth year now?
MM: This is going to be year six, yes. Just completed five.
CoBL: You've had a lot of time to really get settled at the school. Are there any things you're still kind of trying to build, build, build here in terms of culture wise or identity wise with your team?
MM: I think one of the themes — you guys covered our games this year. I think we began to compete harder. Effort level was at a max this year, and it's the first time it's been that way. From January on, we really, really competed on every possession, for every loose ball and that was a big step forward. So we're looking to continue to carry that over, and we're really excited about the level of player and the level of talent of the kids who are now choosing La Salle. Our freshman classes, most of the kids who are coming in that freshman class had multiple offers and that's a new experience for us. The things that we're doing are being noticed by people in the know and people are starting to choose La Salle. Obviously, it's always been a great education and a great school and hopefully the basketball program is starting to make its mark and catch up to that.
CoBL: What was it like to have Coach Dunphy in the building this year? Did you guys get to rub shoulders at all?
MM: Yeah, yeah. It's been great. He's a mentor to a lot of coaches because he's the winningest Big 5 coach ever. He knows the game, but he's just a great human being. And I’ve been able to bounce ideas off and get feedback and you know, he humors me to make me think that I've shared ideas with him. He makes you feel good that way, and that's one of the things that makes him great. But it was really nice seeing them make a late run and win some tournament games and hoping that we can both string together nice runs through the tournament next year and maybe find ourselves dancing.
CoBL: Any other I guess takeaways from the season or things you're looking forward to this offseason I didn't hit on?
MM: I guess with a smaller nucleus coming back, I'm excited about — Molly's returning with her coming off the season where she led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, and coming back for her sixth season, along with Emilee and Julie and Fiona and Emma, that group is going to be, largely responsible for shaping who we are with potentially 10 new players incoming. And I'm really, I'm really excited for that to be the group that's responsible for this. They are exceptional young women, they are all in for LaSalle, they're invested and they're going to set a really good tone for our newbies.
CoBL: It's a pretty different story from last year.
MM: Exact opposite, right? I mean last year, we returned everybody. We had one new face and then the freshmen, so we had five newcomers with one of those newcomers, their sisters were here, so this is a different scenario, but it's one that is kind of exciting. It's a challenge to put a new group together and to build their own identity. Even last year though was a different team from the year before, even though the players were the same because every year is a new team. Different players that have different aspirations, different hopes, and sometimes that goes really well and sometimes it doesn't go as well as you'd hoped. But we're looking forward to this opportunity.