By Rick Ryan, Charleston Gazette-Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Tianni Kelly was simply hoping for a solid showing in her first season as women’s basketball coach at her alma mater, the University of Charleston.
After all, the Golden Eagles returned several veteran players and looked to be among the contenders in the Mountain East Conference. What Kelly got from that group, however, exceeded expectations.
UC won the South Division championship to pick up a No. 1 seed in the MEC tournament, rallied from behind to knock off Glenville State in the tournament finals and swept a pair of games in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional in Columbus to earn the program’s first Elite Eight national tournament bid since 2006.
For that performance, Kelly has been selected as the winner of the Furfari Award as the state’s college coach of the year by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association. Kelly will be honored at the 74th Victory Awards Dinner May 23 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.
Mike Carey, the women’s basketball coach at West Virginia University, finished second in the balloting, followed by West Liberty wrestling coach Danny Irwin and West Liberty men’s basketball coach Ben Howlett.
Kelly, a native of Pickerington, Ohio and a 2015 UC graduate, earlier won the MEC women’s coach of the year award for a season that started out with 13 straight wins and ended with a 19-3 mark in a season abbreviated by COVID-19.
“We 100% exceeded expectations,” Kelly said. “We did not expect to go as far as we did … so it was definitely beyond expectations.”
Of course, it helped to have the services of an experienced lineup, led by a pair of All-MEC first-team selections in guard Brooklyn Pannell and forward Erykah Russell. Pannell, a 5-foot-9 senior, was chosen as the MEC player of the year. Interestingly, one of the last things Kelly did before leaving her post as an assistant coach on Adam Collins’ UC staff in 2017 was helping recruit Pannell to UC’s Kanawha City campus. So she in essence paved her own path to success.
“I recruited Brooklyn before I left,” Kelly said, “and that was actually a big part in my wanting to come back and wanting to coach here. When I recruited her, I knew she had player of the year potential, and it was huge for me to be able to help her get here. Obviously, she was going to be a great player and probably would have [won the award] without me. But it was nice for me to be part of that as well.
“And I feel very fortunate that [former UC coach Becky Burke] recruited Erykah here. I can’t say enough about how well she played and how big she came up in so many games this season.”
One of the many highlights for Charleston this season was beating Glenville State 87-80 in the MEC title game at Wheeling’s WesBanco Arena, a game in which the Golden Eagles trailed by seven points early in the fourth quarter. The Pioneers and Golden Eagles had split their two regular-season meetings, each winning on the other’s home floor.
The end finally came in the Elite Eight, also held in Columbus, when UC fell to Drury 74-66 after leading by 17 points in the first quarter. Russell and others worked their way into game-long foul trouble and UC couldn’t hold on.
Kelly hopes the good times can keep right on rolling next season, even with graduation losses.
“This is only making me hungrier,” she said. “Obviously, we want to repeat. We want to get back to the same level. We don’t want it to be a one-and-done situation. That should make us hungry and make me excited for the future. I know that confidence was huge for us; we’re constantly instilling confidence in the kids we have. ‘Hey, we can do it. As long as we’re together, we can do anything.’
“Sometimes I believe things like that when I say it, and sometimes I don’t even believe it myself. But I believe I’ve got to say things before we can see it. It’s huge knowing that we belong [as a contender] and that we’re here, and we have a right to be here. I’m very blessed and it’s very exciting.”
Of course, it’s been said that the toughest thing about success is sustaining it, and Kelly realizes the situation.
“Exactly,” she said. “That’s crossed my mind many times. So I know I have to do a good job in recruiting and doing an even better job coaching next year. It’ll be fun and exciting in the future to see what happens.”
Tickets for the Victory Awards Dinner, priced at $25 each, will soon be selling at most daily newspapers around the state. The deadline for advance purchase of tickets is May 17, and checks can be made out to WVSWA. No tickets are sold at the door, and everyone needs a ticket to attend, including honorees.
The award is named after Mickey Furfari, the late long-time sportswriter in the Morgantown area.