By: Ethan Fuller
After spending 18 months confined to practices and sidelines, Emily Esposito is finally preparing to continue her college basketball career.
When the season tips off, the redshirt junior’s debut will be the culmination of a journey in self-reflection, self-awareness and self-confidence. Esposito has not logged an official minute since March 24, 2019. Last time she appeared in the box score, she scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds in a WNIT loss against West Virginia.
Then she took off her No. 23 Wildcats jersey for the last time, and that summer, transferred to Boston University.
As she told the Gorham Times that August, Esposito’s choice represented a monumental shift in psyche — one that put “Emily the person” before “Emily the athlete.”
“I was making a decision that was based off, ‘Oh, do I think I’m gonna get along with these people? Do I like the environment?” she elaborated to WTBU on Thursday. “It was so much more than just basketball to me, and I think that’s why this decision was much more successful.”
During her first go-round on the recruiting trail, Esposito placed heavy emphasis on the gritty basketball details: offensive schemes, stylistic fit and program perks. On her second opportunity, Esposito says she found a more meaningful benefit at BU.
“When I came on my visit… it was a family atmosphere,” she said. “And I know a lot of people say that, but to truly be about that — everyone’s clapping for each other, everyone’s high-fiving at practice.”
These little things, Esposito believes, are rarely what colleges pitch to recruits. She has even talked with friends about creating a guide that describes how to find what matters in a college program. One key piece of advice: do not get distracted by bells and whistles.
“When you’re getting recruited, you often get sold the state-of-the-art facilities, or you get an iPad to watch film on or you get this great gear,” Esposito said.
“And that’s amazing and everything, but at the end of the day it’s not the gear that’s gonna help you when you’re having a bad day. It’s the people you’re around.”
Midway through the 2018-19 season, Esposito was already contemplating her place at Villanova. When she set her mind on transferring, Esposito says she actually felt more relaxed on the court – perhaps exemplified by the 27 points she dropped in the first round of the WNIT.
“I actually started to play better when I knew I was transferring,” she said. “I wasn’t so worried about being a ball hog or whatever the case may be, so toward the end I definitely knew I played better.”
When she embarked on her second college search, one of the first people Esposito reached out to was a fellow Maine native – and a future Terrier teammate – in recent graduate Nia Irving. The two had rarely connected before, but Esposito saw the similarities between her and Irving’s journeys.
“On her visit to BU is when we got to know each other,” Irving said. “I really tried to pitch how close the team was and how much we loved the coaching staff because I knew that was something that was important to her while she was looking at schools.”
Boston is also much closer to Esposito’s home in Gorham, Maine, than Villanova’s Pennsylvania campus.
“I know how important her family is to her, so she would be a good distance so that her family could drive and come see her on the weekends, and she could always go home for a little visit.”
The Terriers officially welcomed Esposito to the team on June 18, 2019. But Esposito still faced hurdles. Over time she had begun limping noticeably, and when BU trainers investigated, they discovered a bone contusion on the head of her femur.
“I guess it was close to a stress fracture,” Esposito said. “And it was in a pretty unique place, so they said, ‘Let’s go non-weight-bearing for four weeks… I feel like I’ve come a long way; I only feel it once in a while now.”
Even as Esposito worked her way back to health, transfer eligibility rules turned into another maze of technicalities, forms and confusion.
“The coaches were great about guiding me through the whole process,” she said, ” but at the same time, you’re trying to persuade someone to allow you to play for a valid reason, and what you consider valid, they might not consider valid.”
“And that’s really hard – to try and prove your point in that case. So it was definitely pretty frustrating to go through all this paperwork and then have it be denied, and then denied a second time.”
But practices put her teammates and coaches on notice. A 5-foot-9-inch guard, Esposito played 18 minutes per game with the Wildcats, averaging five points and 2.1 boards. Her shot-creating ability and surgical precision in the mid-range are her greatest strengths, and if assistant coach Darren Bennett’s testimony is any indication, those skills translated to Case Gym.
“She became the hardest practice player to defend against,” he said. “She was definitely a reason we finished in second place because if we can guard her in practice, we can guard anyone in the league.”
Bennett primarily works with guards and wings for the Terriers and plays a pivotal role in getting new players acclimated to the team. That task is much different for a transfer student than an incoming freshman.
“Those first-year player’s that you recruit, you’ve been doing it for a while,” Bennett said. “[The coaches] have had a lot of rapport, a lot of communication with players… they’ve been to one or two of our games, that kind of thing. Emily hadn’t seen us play; she was living her journey through Nia in terms of learning about our basketball team and our new coaching staff.”
Esposito has spent the past season learning an entirely new system. She already redshirted her freshman year at Villanova to learn the Wildcat offense, so restarting with head coach Marisa Moseley’s scheme became a year-long process.
“Villanova has a lot more, what I would call freelance motion, but still pattern-like, and it does take a while to get on the same page,” said Bennett. “Ours has a little bit of a motion style; some are set calls, some are set plays [and] there’s a lot of ’em.”
“I don’t think [Villanova] had as many set offenses as we did,” added Irving. “So there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve trying to learn the plays.”
Esposito spent the early part of the season taking notes on the game, but she also focused on the dynamic between BU’s coaching staff and players.
“I like to observe. So I think it was really perfect for me to sit back and watch and see how things really work in this program,” she said.
Nerves still creep in for Esposito as the Terriers look to build on a promising season slashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She currently has no date to circle in red on her calendar; the suspense could build into 2021. But her comfort level, with the Terriers and with her decision, aim to be a steadying force.
“Definitely, thinking about playing gets me a little nervous just because I haven’t played in a while,” she said. “But keeping in my mind that the hoop is still ten feet, nothing has changed in terms of that — keeping that in my mind will help a lot.”
Featured image courtesy of BU Athletics.