Vengeance. That’s the motivation rumbling below the New York University women’s basketball season like subways roaring beneath the downtown campus. No one on the squad mentions it much, but it surges into consciousness at the slightest provocation. Ask coach Janice Quinn—the fiery NYU alum who was the school’s first 1000-point scorer and who, as coach, is poised to win her 300th game this year—whether she’s still smarting from . . . and before you can finish the question, she’s answering, “Sure. Sure. Sure,” and slapping her glass-topped desk in rhythmic emphasis. The team wants a shot at the NCAA championship. Not too much to ask, given their stellar record—15-1, with the lone loss coming at the hands of three-time defending champ and unflinching rival Washington University of St. Louis—and given that the Violets were national champions in 1997.
But last year, after seven straight appearances in the Division III tournament (including seven straight trips to the Sweet 16), NYU was snubbed by the NCAA, despite a 20-5 record and a second-place conference finish (behind Washington). Instead, the Violets watched as Centenary College of New Jersey, the College of Staten Island, and a parade of other lesser teams marched into the tournament, while they fumed at home about new NCAA rules that give automatic bids to weaker conferences, knocking out second-place teams from much stronger ones.
“When someone beats us, it takes us getting revenge 10 times before we feel that bullet pulled out of our chest,” says Quinn, leaning over her desk as though her chair were a starting block. “We can’t change the NCAA process, but there’s one thing we can control: our preparation, our performance, our game.” Quinn settles back for philosophic reflection: “It’s a great lesson for the kids, though. In a highly political, bureaucratic environment, people don’t always react the way you want them to.” And then she’s springing forward again, leaping to the call of a game-starting whistle only she can hear. “We still have the opportunity when the ball goes up to win. That’s non-political. That’s non-bureaucratic. That’s up to us.”
This week, there’s more immediate retribution to be exacted: NYU takes on rival Washington at home on Friday in what is sure to be a ferocious rematch. The defending champs washed out the Violets 72-37 in St. Louis on January 21, shooting 60 percent from the floor in the first half and forcing 26 NYU turnovers. The loss knocked NYU from No. 2 to No. 4 in the D-3 rankings (Washington, of course, is No. 1). “We did not play well and they played very, very well,” says Quinn, quick to add her signature line: “It’s a good lesson for us.” She continues, “If we’re going to lose to them, I’d rather lose big so it’s hard to make excuses and we see what we need to work on. We can’t grow a 6-2 center between now and Friday, and we can’t get as deep or athletic. But we can get Rashida [Allen, a 5-11 post player] and Angela [Vicari, a 5-8 sweet shooting guard] some more looks and not turn over the ball. That will close the gap.”
Though the Violets were hurting after their loss—”I’d be disappointed if they weren’t; this is an overachieving team,” says Quinn—they revived quickly, trouncing Keuka College 80-39 and Brandeis 89-59. And pip-squeak Fontbonne College proved on January 16 that Washington is not invincible; the small St. Louis school busted Washington’s incredible 81-game winning streak with a 79-68 upset. As for the national rankings, Quinn is dismissive: “It’s just a pride thing. It’s for the fans. It doesn’t matter. For us, the opinion of the East Region advisory committee is the critical factor.” In that poll—which better reflects NCAA selection committee thinking—NYU sits on top. So far. After Washington, NYU faces a tough string of half a dozen games. “It’s a long stretch,” says Quinn. “It would be a mistake for us to be thinking about March instead of staying focused on each game. Losing any single one can really hurt us.” So she’s turning up the heat.
It’s hard to imagine how Quinn can blaze any hotter. Ask any of the 17 team members to characterize their coach, and one word pops out of every mouth: “intense.” At games, Quinn stalks the sidelines in stylish suits, her hair pulled back into a tight, no-nonsense ponytail, urging players to “execute! execute!” Or she perches pensively on her haunches, then leaps up to implore, “Speed it up! Speed it up!” Never mind that NYU might be up more than 20 points, as they were in a January 16 blasting of Russell Sage College, which ended up a 76-32 laugher. Up to the last moments, Quinn was calling out suggestions, punctuated by insistent clapping. “When I’m ready to sit down,” she said afterward, “it’s time for me to get out of it altogether. If I’m not as excited in the last two minutes as I am in the first, I’m done.”
Practices are no different. Frosh Lindsey Pearson has the pecs to prove it: “You weren’t even in that play,” Quinn chides the 5-8 guard after a passing drill. “Give me 10.” And Pearson goes down for push-ups—the first of a dozen sets she’ll pump out that afternoon. “Raise your hand if you think that was Lauren [D’Ambrosio]’s full speed,” Quinn asks the squad after working transition plays for 90 minutes. And before another word is spoken, “Brozh”—as her teammates know her—is doing 10.
“She doesn’t ask you for anything you can’t do,” says Brozh, a 5-6, 124-pound sophomore from Louisville, who shoots a mean 3-pointer. Indeed, it’s only when you stop to notice the size of the players that you remember this isn’t Division I. Never mind the meager turnout at some games—at the Russell Sage contest, dozens of guys came out of the adjoining gym to watch the navel-pierced NYU Purple and White Dance Team at halftime and then returned to their bench presses when the game resumed. And forget that there are no athletic scholarships here. Basketball is every bit as important to these players as it is to those with dreams of the WNBA. It’s just that their academic pursuits are equally important, and understanding that—even emphasizing that—players say, is part of what makes Quinn such a good coach.
“She wants to know about your grades and evaluations,” Pearson says. “She makes sure we’ve registered for classes on time. And if any of us has a problem, she’s the first person we go to.” Players say Quinn has helped them through every college experience imaginable—family difficulties, adjustment problems, pregnancy scares, coming-out dramas.
“I came to NYU because of coach Quinn,” says senior Vicari, who turned down scholarship offers at D-1 schools. Graduating this spring with a major in politics and history and leading the team in assists, Vicari has applied to law school and is hoping to go to Harvard.
As an honors student in economics nearly two decades ago, Quinn, too, thought she’d become an attorney, and she was accepted to several law schools. But when she was offered NYU’s head coaching job at age 23, she deferred her admission year after year until the schools told her she’d have to apply again. She’s never gotten around to it. “There’s something very seductive about winning,” says Quinn, now 37. “And I need to be in a position where I can win.” That also explains why she’s passed up offers for jobs in D-1. “I don’t want to have some athletic director sit me down and say, ‘Well, coach, we’d like to finish in the top third in our conference,’ ” she scowls.
Besides, instead of fostering the one-on-one flash of some D-1 schools, at NYU she can promote “the amazing interconnection of people and timing in this game, the focus of five people working together for one shot.” She sits back to reflect. “It’s almost un-American these days to say you shouldn’t focus on being the individual big cheese,” she says, then bolts forward again. “In order to play this game well, you’ve got to love it.”