When Kelly Komara played in two Final Fours with the Purdue women’s basketball team, she and her teammates were oblivious to the coaching conventions taking place at and around the event.
Now more than a decade removed from her last Final Four as a player, Komara owes her latest ticket to the Big Dance to some chance meetings and conversations at last spring’s Final Four in Denver.
A little more than a year ago Keith Freeman resigned as head coach at Valparaiso University after 19 years, and Komara, who had spent the season as a rookie assistant on Freeman’s staff, was without work.
The 1998 Lake Central grad and Indiana Miss Basketball was just getting used to being close to home when she headed to Denver and, through a mutual friend, met Albany head coach Katie Abrahamson.
Komara now calls Abrahamson “Coach Abe” as they prepare for Sunday’s first-round NCAA tournament matchup with third-seeded North Carolina in Newark, Del.
After making the 2012 tournament, Albany had some defections in the staff, and Komara’s persistence landed her a job at Albany as — of all things for a 5-foot-7 lifelong guard — the post players coach.
“I got an opportunity to interview and said, ‘Hey, look, I’ve got energy, I love the game, and who better to get on the post players than a guard?’” Komara said. “We dictate, we tell the post what to do, and we see the entire floor.”
This season the Great Danes (27-3) went 16-0 in the America East Conference and won the league tournament to secure an automatic bid.
Freshman post player Shereesha Richards, the conference’s co-rookie of the year out of Kingston, Jamaica, is a big part of the team’s success.
“The way that she has developed from the course of the year until now, we all take a lot of pride in playing a role in her development,” Komara said.
“I knew this staff and team was special. It’s hard to go undefeated. I don’t care what conference you are in. We were really, really blessed to have a lot of great players, and it’s been a wonderful year.”
Komara had been the video coordinator for Auburn when the Tigers won an SEC title, but last week’s championship was her first as a coach.
The school is very excited because its men’s team played Duke on Friday in Philadelphia, about an hour from the women’s tournament site in Delaware, and many fans planned to take in both games.
“It was really cool,” Komara said. “After we had won the championship, I took a step back and watched the players dance and hug and put on their championship T-shirts. I got to see what I experienced, and it was really neat to see the flip side of things. It’s great to see coaches who were players give back and help other players achieve these things.”
She’s had two stops at Auburn, the first as a graduate assistant while she was earning a master’s degree, and one at Northwestern since a short pro playing career that included a broken face suffered while she was in training camp with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever in 2002.
Komara, who has two titanium plates in her face, still plays with the college players each day in practice. She displays the grit and discipline that helped her win a national championship with Purdue as a freshman in 1999 and finish runner-up to Notre Dame in 2001, when she was a regional MOP and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
The long-term goal is to be a head coach, but Komara is “as happy as happy can be” this week as the 14th-seeded Great Danes prepare for a tough game with the Tar Heels (28-6).
“The cool part about our team is that (North Carolina’s tradition) is not even a focus,” Komara said. “It’s five-on-five, and it doesn’t matter what the name on the front of the jersey says. It’s how you play the game.
“We’re ready to shock the world.”