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How 12-seed Quinnipiac became a mispronounced Cinderella

HAMDEN, Conn. -- When Tricia Fabbri arrived at Quinnipiac, she shared an office with the men's ice hockey coach, Rand Pecknold.

It was a cramped space -- "the bullpen," she called it -- next to the janitor's closet, behind an elevator, right by the heating system.

"It was probably smaller than a bathroom," said Jack McDonald, the university's former director of athletics and recreation for 20 years.

All she had was a desk, two chairs and a phone. She didn't have any full-time assistant coaches. This was life at a Division II school in 1995, long before she would lead a mid-major Division I program -- one many people struggle to pronounce -- from a Connecticut suburb into the Sweet 16.

"I was thrilled to have [the office] because I was a head coach, and I was so proud of it," she said.

It's easy to call Quinnipiac -- KWIN-uh-pee-ack -- a Cinderella. After all, the Bobcats became the fourth 12-seed to advance to the Sweet 16 in women's NCAA tournament history, with upsets over No. 5 Marquette last Saturday and fourth-seeded Miami on Monday.

But those two games, the first two tournament wins in program history, were no surprise to the players on the "other" Connecticut team in the tournament.

"We kind of knew it was going to happen," fifth-year senior Adily Martucci said. "It wasn't all of a sudden, 'Woo, we won!' We knew we put the work in. We knew that we were gonna win."

Quinnipiac's success over a three-day span in March hardly came out of nowhere. It's taken 22 years -- 19 at the Division I level -- for the school to turn a two-win team in the Northeast-10 into one of the top mid-majors in the country.

It starts with Fabbri. Her road to three NCAA tournament berths in five years took off in Italy in August 2012, when, during a 10-day team trip to face international competition, she split her 15-player squad into three groups of five and rotated each group during games. Five in, five out, like a hockey shift.

Thus, the Gold Rush was born.

"It was really out of that experiment that it was like, 'Are we onto something here?'" Fabbri said. "And we thought, 'We are!' "

That system led Quinnipiac to its first Northeast Conference title in 2013, and Fabbri has used it over the past few years. This team, though, actually abandoned the system earlier this year when guard Brittany Johnson suffered a season-ending injury. That said, it's a testament to Quinnipiac's depth.

Ten Bobcats average at least 10 minutes per game. Their leading scorer, Jen Fay, averages just 10.4 points per game.

In the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title game, Aryn McClure scored 28 points. Fay led the team with 20 points against Marquette. Senior Morgan Manz hit six 3-pointers off the bench against Miami.

"For us, we don't have anything to lose. We're the underdog in this case even though we don't see ourselves as the underdog."

Jen Fay

"I'm sure it makes it hard for the other team to guard against because they don't know who's gonna go off," said junior Carly Fabbri, Tricia's daughter.

Tricia had never coached Carly before she officially became a Bobcat, yet in a sense, Carly had been a Bobcat her entire life. She grew up with the program. As a kid, she helped rebound for the players during practices. She used to be the team's water girl. She would sit in the back with players on bus rides, stay with the team in hotels during road trips, help out during summer camps.

"The only way I would do it," Tricia said, "was having my family around."

Then again, it's tough to say Carly had been a Bobcat all her life. Before Quinnipiac College became Quinnipiac University, the school's mascot was the Braves. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for schools using Native American mascots or nicknames to change their names to something else. Quinnipiac went a year without a nickname, from December 2001 to August 2002.

They considered the Coyotes and the Jaguars, but officially opted to be the Bobcats.

Even with the new identity, they still played in a renovated Burt Kahn Court, complete with wooden bleachers.

But in 2007, the university opened its $52 million sports complex, the TD Bank Sports Center, which houses a 3,386-seat hockey arena on one side and a 3,570-seat basketball arena on the other. Over the past five years, Quinnipiac is 64-7 at home.

For every step forward that Fabbri and the team took, McDonald, who left Quinnipiac for the University of New England in 2015, was there. His first year as athletic director was Fabbri's first year as head coach. He even prevented her from quitting six years into the job.

After a five-point loss to Seton Hall in December 2000, Fabbri questioned if she would be able to lead the program to success. It had nothing to do with budgets or mistreatment. She was tired of losing. She walked into McDonald's office and offered her resignation.

He didn't accept it.

"When she went home after a tough loss and it really wore on her," McDonald said, "I would always tell her, 'You go home and see your kids, and it'll make you feel really good about who you are.'"

That advice came from the man who visited her in the hospital the day Carly was born.

Now Quinnipiac is headed to its first Sweet 16 when it takes on 1-seed South Carolina on Saturday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 4:06 p.m. ET) in the Stockton Regional semifinals.

While the Gamecocks boast espnW All-American A'ja Wilson, who averages 17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, Quinnipiac didn't land a player to the all-MAAC first team.

"For us, we don't have anything to lose," Fay said. "We're the underdog in this case, even though we don't see ourselves as the underdog."

Saturday's game will, at the very least, put Quinnipiac on the national map. Prior to the NCAA tournament, Marquette's Natisha Hiedeman said she had never heard of Quinnipiac. And why should she have? A sophomore from Green Bay who goes to school in Milwaukee? That was enough bulletin board material for the Bobcats.

"I thrive off people not knowing our name," said Martucci, who blocked Hiedeman's potential game-tying jumper in the closing seconds in the first round.

Perhaps there are aspirations to move up to a larger conference down the road, which could turn Quinnipiac into more of a household name. Fabbri doesn't only want people to know what Quinnipiac is and what the program is becoming, though. She wants people to know how to say it.

"I would hope that the name now rolls off the tongue instead of being intimidating to others when they don't know how to say it," Fabbri said.

It's not kwin-uh-PEE-ack, and it's certainly not shortened to Q-Pac.

It's KWIN-uh-pee-ack.