By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In late March, with an opening to fill on her coaching staff at UVa, Joanne Boyle issued a directive to Cory and Kim McNeill as they headed out to Denver, site of the NCAA women’s Final Four: Be on the lookout for promising candidates.
“Who would you want to work with?” Boyle asked her assistants. “Who do you know out there that’s good?”
Boyle planned to seek the counsel of fellow head coaches, too, but she knew her assistants have different contacts in the basketball world than she does, and she values the McNeills’ opinions.
They didn’t have to look for long in Denver. The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association holds its annual convention in conjunction with the Final Four, and the McNeills found the themselves at a roundtable on post play led by Marquette assistant Ashley Earley.
“They thought it was awesome,” Boyle said this week.
The McNeills talked to Earley after the roundtable, liked what they heard from her, and reported as much to Boyle, who soon learned that she and Earley had some mutual contacts.
“All I kept hearing through the grapevine of people that knew her were such great things about her,” Boyle said.
Earley, a former Vanderbilt star, received strong endorsements from Hadley Zeavin, Melanie Balcomb and Cara Consuegra, among others.
Zeavin, Boyle’s administrative assistant at Virginia, was a student manager at Vandy during Earley’s final two seasons there. Balcomb took over as the Commodores’ coach after Earley’s freshman season.
“She said, ‘You know, if I was to hire any former athlete, Ashley would be the one,’ ” Boyle recalled.
Consuegra, now Charlotte’s head coach, was an assistant at Marquette with Earley in 2010-11, when the Golden Eagles went 24-9 and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round.
“Cara said to me, ‘One of the benefits of me staying at Marquette and not taking a head job would have been that I could have learned so much from Ashley in terms of post play,’ ” Boyle said.
All of which made Boyle’s decision easy, especially after Earley impressed during her visit to Charlottesville last month. Boyle offered an assistant’s position to Earley, who accepted.
“Talking to the entire staff for the first time, you felt the energy,” Earley, a 2005 graduate of Vanderbilt, said at John Paul Jones Arena. “I had no doubt, after five minutes, that this program was going to win and be successful. So from there I just needed to know them as people.”
Cory McNeill is a former Georgetown assistant, and Earley had met him in their Big East days. She had crossed paths with Kim McNeill, a former Georgia assistant, during recruiting periods. Until her interview at UVa, Earley had never met Boyle, but “I just had heard really great things about her and the things that she’d done throughout her coaching career, and then as a person,” Earley said.
After spending a couple of days at UVa last month, Earley said, “I knew that they were great people, and that was the key for me in making a decision, because I wasn’t looking to leave, but it was just an opportunity that I couldn’t [pass up].”
Earley is from Memphis, Tenn., where she attended Briarcrest Christian School. That’s the school from which football player Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame also graduated.
As a Briarcrest senior, Earley was a first-team Parade All-American, a gifted guard who averaged 23.9 points, 10 rebounds, 5.3 steals, 4.1 assists and 4 blocked shots per game.
She started 10 games at guard as a Vanderbilt freshman. After the season, however, Earley tore the ACL in her left knee. When she was healthy enough to play again, she found herself in a new role. Never mind that she wasn’t close to 6-foot.
“We had a new coaching staff,” Earley recalled, “and we needed another post player. Coming off an ACL, I was slower, but they wanted me to play, so they put me down in the post, and I ended up working out there. I never saw the perimeter again unless I was making a high-low pass.”
In 2011-12, its first season under Boyle, UVa finished 25-11 after losing in the WNIT quarterfinals. Of the Cavaliers’ returning post players, only Simone Egwu (6-3) and seldom-used Erinn Thompson (6-4) are taller than 6-2. That doesn’t worry Earley.
“Well, I was a post player in college,” she said. “I’m about 5-9. So when you speak of lack of height, that doesn’t matter. With my philosophy, the way that I teach, it doesn’t matter how big you are, because you’re doing your work before you even catch the ball, working on the mental side and trying to create the angles.”
As a Vanderbilt senior, Earley averaged 18.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals and made the All-SEC first team. As a coach, Earley stresses the fundamentals to her post players, including “scoring on the catch, which involves working to create the angle before the ball even comes to your side of the floor,” she said.
“When you do that, then when you catch it, it’s easy to just catch and score. Just try to make it as simple as possible. I don’t think a great post player needs 5,000 moves. If you have a couple moves and counters to go with those moves, I think you’re solid. As a player myself — and this is how I’ve taught my post players that I’ve coached — I had two moves that worked for me.”
Earley had only one day on the court with Virginia’s post players before their organized workouts ended for the semester.
“They definitely worked hard,” Earley said.
So did Earley, said Boyle, who observed the session.
“Her energy on the floor, her drill work was good, how she connected with the players, how she connected the drill work to what we were doing,” Boyle said. “Attention to detail was really important to her. She knows her stuff, and she delivers it very well.”
UVa is the fourth school at which Earley has been an assistant coach. (The others: Marquette, Rhode Island and Tennessee Tech.) She was a graduate assistant at Alabama, from which she received a master’s in marketing in 2007.
“A lot of great experiences,” Earley said. “Quick experiences, but I’ve seen a lot.”
And now she’s at a school whose academic reputation is comparable to that of her alma mater.
“I love it,” Earley said. “I think that student-athletes that come here, they want to excel in everything they do. Obviously we’re in the ACC, we’re the University of Virginia, we’re going to compete nationally on the basketball court. But adding the academic piece, that’s a kid that wants to be great at everything, that wants to be on top. I think there’s some value to coaching that type of player.”
Earley replaces Katie O’Connor, who left UVa after one season and returned to the University of Kansas. O’Connor is dealing with a health issue that affected her as the 2011-12 season went on, Boyle said.
At Kansas, O’Connor will eventually work as an operations assistant, Boyle said, a position that won’t require her to travel with the team or recruit.