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Thibault-DuDonis, carrying on family business, has Fairfield on 20-game win streak

HARTFORD COURANT VIA AP
                                Fairfield coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis speaks with Kendall McGruder (1) and Izabela Nicoletti Leite (10) on Feb. 8.
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HARTFORD COURANT VIA AP

Fairfield coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis speaks with Kendall McGruder (1) and Izabela Nicoletti Leite (10) on Feb. 8.

FAIRFIELD, Conn. >> Fairfield coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis had trouble sleeping as a child, so she would often get up and go downstairs to sit with her dad, now-former NBA assistant and WNBA head coach Mike Thibault, who seemed to be always awake and breaking down game film.

Thibault-DuDonis would ask questions, becoming a student of the game at a very young age.

“I always loved being in the gym with my dad’s teams as a kid,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “And I loved when he made the jump to the WNBA. I got to be around female basketball players and pro athletes. That was really the first time I’d ever seen that. It was the first time I’d ever really seen female coaches.”

Now 32, Thibault-DuDonis is in her second year as a head coach, leading Fairfield to a 22-1 record and a 20-game winning streak. The Stags are on the cusp of entering the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history, receiving 28 points this week.

The Stags visit Siena (13-10, 10-5) on Thursday.

Mike Thibault, whose son Eric is the head coach of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, said he never pushed either of his children into basketball. In fact, he had a rule that he would not discuss the game with them unless they asked. But they always did, he said.

“One of my reasons for going to the ‘W’ from the NBA was that we were debating as a family what to do with the Connecticut Sun situation and I had just started coaching her youth team, that year before,” he said. “And one of her comments along there was, ‘Women’s basketball needs good coaches, too.’”

Thibault-DuDonis became a ball girl on her dad’s team and became friends with players such as Lindsay Whalen and Brooke Wyckoff, who eventually became coaches themselves, and mentors to Thibault-DuDonis.

She served with Wyckoff at Florida State, was an assistant coach at Eastern Michigan, and at Mississippi State, where she helped coach the Bulldogs to back-to-back championship game appearances, before becoming Whalen’s top assistant at Minnesota.

“I would have been a horrible head coach had I not worked for Lindsay,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “I think it’s really easy to get caught up in the competition, in the business and the wins and losses. And she was people-oriented. And I think that really impacted me in a really positive way.”

Thibault-DuDonis was a surprise hire when long-time Fairfield coach Joe Frager retired in 2022 after leading the Stags to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years.

But senior guard Janelle “Nellie” Brown said the young coach immediately sat down with the team, shared her vision, showed them where they could get better and convinced them that she cared about them as people. It also helped that she was a woman, and not that far removed from her own playing days at Monmouth, said Brown, who is averaging just under 14 points a game.

“She knows what it is being in this tedious generation,” Brown said. “She understands the pains that we go through, the struggles, the stresses. So it was definitely a factor to help in us really buying into her.”

She also recruited well, landing players such as freshman Meghan Andersen, who is averaging just under 16 points per game for the Stags.

“She builds connections here and you see that on the court how we play,” Andersen said. We’re very connected. We have chemistry. And I think that starts with her because that’s what she tries to create for us.”

Thibault-DuDonis opened practice last week by jumping into a shooting contest, draining shots from 3-point range after dividing her squad into two teams. Her team won, and the other ended up having to do pushups.

Fairfield plays in Connecticut, under the considerable shadow of 11-time national champion UConn. But Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said he has become an admirer, noting that a 20-game winning streak at any level is very hard to achieve and that it is almost impossible for a mid-major to crack the Top 25.

“So for them to be doing what they’re doing is pretty incredible,” he said.

Auriemma then joked: “I was going to ask them if they want to play (us). But I’m not asking anymore. I changed my mind on that one.”

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