Stefanie Pemper's Navy seeks upset
Mids coach was on Harvard staff when the Crimson knocked off No. 1 Stanford in 1998
Before heading to Stanford for a 16 versus 1 matchup in the first round of 1998 NCAA tournament, Harvard women's assistant coach Stefanie Pemper pondered the merits of bringing two sets of clothes with her, just in case the long-shot Crimson would play more than one game.
"I do believe we can win," Pemper thought to herself, even though she knew a No. 16 seed had never beaten a No. 1 in men's or women's college basketball. "So two outfits it is."
Pemper made the right choice. Harvard's 71-67 upset of Stanford became a historic game for all of college basketball. It also marked the last win for Pemper as an assistant coach.
Now in her third season as head coach at Navy, Pemper is bringing her magic touch to the NCAA tournament. She led the Midshipmen to their first NCAA berth, thanks to a remarkable comeback in the Patriot League title game. Navy, a No. 14 seed, faces third-seeded DePaul in the Philadelphia Regional at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 1:30 p.m. ET).
Before coming to Navy, Pemper was the coach at Division III Bowdoin College, a liberal arts school in small-town Brunswick, Maine. There she developed a coaching style that emphasized there was more to basketball than what took place on the court. She has brought that to Navy, as well.
At Bowdoin, practices opened with the players talking about the classes they'd been in that day. When the team took an undefeated record into the Division III Final four in 2004, it left campus early so it could spend a day in Colonial Williamsburg on its way to the championship site.
At halftime of one game at Bowdoin, the players got engrossed in conversation and lost track of time and came out of the locker room 30 seconds before the second half was to start. Undaunted, the team suffocated its opponent into 25 percent shooting and won easily.
The defense that was a trademark of the Bowdoin teams that Pemper took to six straight Division III regional finals was the difference in the Patriot League tournament. Navy held its three conference tournament opponents to an average of 39 points per game. Trailing 30-18 to American at halftime in the championship match, the Mids allowed just 10 second-half points and won, 47-40.
That tied the second-largest rally from a halftime deficit in program history. Freshmen Jade Geif, Alix Membreno and Audrey Bauer combined for 33 points on a day in which senior Cassie Consedine was held scoreless and top-scoring Angela Myers netted seven points.
"To think that three freshmen would step up no one could have predicted that," Pemper said. "What [the team] did on Saturday taught them about working in groups and capturing the moments as much as their military training does. What we do in athletics is just as rich as anything they do in the military. We're partners in that."
Student life is tough at a military academy. Everyone wakes up at 5:30 each morning. The underclassmen must address upper-class students as "sir" or "ma'am." Everyone's lives are tightly scheduled to the minute. Freshmen barely leave campus. There is little time for partying. For these players, basketball is the most fun part of a busy day.
Pemper brought some elements both fun and educational to Annapolis, Md., from her previous coaching stint. Players were given books to read from Pemper's library -- from the story of an arctic expedition team to Phil Jackson's "Sacred Hoops" -- and had to report back with what themes they took from the book. Consedine called it "thought-provoking."
Road trips have included stops at the Museum of Science, Boston, and Acadia National Park in Maine. Before leaving for Happy Valley, Pa., to face DePaul, the squad will conduct its annual fun-filled "Team Olympiad."
"You don't want any opponent to take [us] more seriously than we take them, but we try to keep things in perspective," Pemper said.
But Navy takes its basketball seriously. Pemper puts a priority on valuing the little things and is firm in her discipline, right down to punishing the team if it litters in the locker room.
Myers is the team's leading scorer and two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. Consedine, who along with Myers survived a 7-23 season as a freshman in the year prior to Pemper's arrival, is second in scoring and rebounding.
Pemper has always been big on her players taking ownership in what's at stake. Last Saturday, a lot of credit for the team's second-half success went to junior Erin Edwards, who inspired the team with an encouraging speech in the locker room at halftime.
"[Pemper] has changed our culture here," Consedine said. "We're better for [the rules she's instilled]. She's set us up for this success."
It has taken the team to this point, packing for a trip to Pennsylvania. Pemper's response when e-mailed to see if she'd be packing for two days was no surprise.
"Absolutely," she wrote.
Mark Simon is a research specialist for ESPN Stats and Information.