Five And Dime

Katherine Coyer has this specific way of responding, when she’s about to field a well-trodden question concerning the dynamic she shares with Caroline, her twin sister and senior teammate on the Villanova women’s basketball team.

The eyelids flutter once, then twice. A wry smile is displayed. Been down this road before. But then she responds in the same way she plays: unfailingly polite. “There’s a solid, like, three-question rotation,” Katherine says, patiently, of the sibling-related queries.

Here comes Caroline, the fraternal twin in question, older by three minutes, shorter (5-10) by one inch. When the pair spoke to SLAM last weekend, they were standing just outside the visitor’s locker room at Haas Pavilion, after helping the Wildcats to a win over Sacramento State in the first game of the Cal Classic.

Caroline rattled off the standard succession of queries in vintage rapid-fire vocal delivery: What’s it like being on a team with your sister? What’s it like being a twin? To which Katherine then added, Why’d you choose to go to school together?

So let’s focus instead upon what sets these sisters apart, because there are few tandems more dynamic currently playing this game. Caroline, Nova’s all-purpose star point guard, the team leader in statistical categories that must be counted on both hands.

The Kat effect? Rather more muted; just as essential to the team’s success. The bass line taking this song from good to great. Steady as she goes. She’d probably lead the Big East in the number of plays she impacts positively, were it a category. Seriously. This is plus-minus/efficiency on a quadruple-shot of espresso.

It is seen in the deflection that results in a steal for Cats teammate. Tipping a missed shot back out to the perimeter. Providing the pass before the pass that gets recorded as an assist. And scoring? “I get kind of sneaky about it,” Katherine says. “Most of my baskets come off a backdoor cut. I’m not gonna beat someone 1 on 1, so I have to use my head.”

It’s the latest manifestation of what Villanova head coach Harry Perretta has often said: “Katherine doesn’t get the accolades, but it doesn’t bother her. She’s the kind of kid every coach would love to have on a team.”

It’s why she was named to the Cal Classic’s all-tournament team. Not so much the stats she produced as the effect she had on the two games. Profound. She was sitting on the bench when the news was announced, Caroline to her left. Both were upset. Villanova had fallen in the championship to Saint Mary’s, the Cats’ third loss of the season. Katherine was applying adhesive tape to her right thumb. The day before, she’d earned a scratch from a Sac State player (“That chick had long nails!”), just under her right arm that required a bandage.

There’s what’s often said of Caroline: She could average 20 points if she wanted to, but she’d rather get an assist. Caroline, tasked with keeping Villanova’s motion offense humming, getting all those wrinkles going, who through eight games this season has tallied 41 assists to just 9 turnovers (a 4.6 assist-to-turnover ratio), which Villanova associate head coach Joe Mullaney rightly refers to as “insanely good.”

“I’d match her with any point guard in the country,” says Mullaney. “Caroline is that good.”

She is also refreshingly humble. When Caroline was invited this past summer to try out for the team that would represent the US at the Pan-American Games, she arrived with muted expectations. She didn’t think she’d make the cut. (She did.) Even now, Mullaney says he has to pull her aside during games to tell her, Hey, you need to take over.

“She’s one of the most unselfish kids you’ll meet,” says Mullaney.

This is what quickly becomes evident: the tangible effect the twins have on this team. It stems from the unflinching attention to detail they share, knowing full-well how integral it is to winning. Should Katherine jump to receive a pass just shy of midcourt, she’ll have checked how much room she has to operate—is she in danger of committing a backcourt violation—before she’s touched back down. It’s no coincidence that as seniors in high school, they were at the helm an undefeated season.

When it came to college recruiting, they knew they wanted to play together. Many schools wanted Caroline; Perretta wanted both. He could see why their high school coach would often say of Katherine: Come to our practice for a week and watch her. You’ll be looking for a way to get her onto the court.

In Villanova, Katherine saw top-class academics, just the right distance—not too close, not too far—from home, in Virginia. A basketball program suited perfectly to her strengths. She was never going to produce step-back threes, all that show-me-something highlight-reel fare. But Perretta could care less about that side of the game.

He’d rather see one of Katherine’s vintage backdoor cuts in his motion offense; the way she reads a defender and curls accordingly to get free. How she sets a pick perfectly to spring a teammate. On defense, Perretta need not have worried two years ago, when the emphasis on eliminating hand-checking entered the rulebook. Katherine’s lateral movement is so sound, she often frustrates her opponent into mistakes.

Says Mullaney, “Katherine’s approach has always been, ‘Give me the best kid, and I’ll guard her.’ She plays through pain. She’s had shin splints, all kinds of issues (she missed five games last season to a knee injury). Other kids wouldn’t play, but here she is, asking for the toughest defensive assignment.”

Caroline thinks back to when they were growing up. Katherine was always practicing with purpose. There was such a rigor to her approach: working on left-hand layups (she’s still remarkably adept at finishing with her weaker hand to this day), or hammering home that footwork.

“And I was always like, Whatever,” says Caroline. “The game came naturally to me.”

But as she moved up the ranks, Caroline noted that while Katherine could hit a lefty layup with ease, she had trouble trying to do the same.

“It was because I hadn’t worked as hard at it,” Caroline says. “Katherine had all these fundamentals down, and I thought, Whoa, I should probably work harder at it! She’s always set a really good example for me in terms of working hard. So it’s good to have her here (at Villanova). She kind of keeps me on track, you know?”

Now, if she finds herself struggling during games, her shot not falling, passes not popping just right, Caroline will hearken back to the fundamentals. She’ll go Kat on that team, looking for a seam, reading the way her defender is guarding her, putting in a nice layup to get herself going. Or maybe just crashing the boards like few guards in the game.

They’re currently clicking, but that wasn’t the case, initially, at Villanova. The running joke, freshman year, was that the Coyers were cousins. The two were thick as thieves growing up—”Like, inseparable,” Caroline says—but a rift developed during that first year in college. The twins weren’t living together, for the first time in their lives, but more importantly, they had different outlooks on college.

“Katherine was more reserved,” Caroline says, Katherine nodding to that assessment. “She wasn’t sad, but she was a little homesick, and meanwhile I was just like, COLLEGE!! THIS IS SO GREAT! SO MANY PEOPLE!!”

Katherine: “She totally embraced it.”

Caroline: “And I’d be like, Come on, Kat, let’s go meet people! And she was like, ‘I’m…gonna go watch Netflix.’ She was just real quiet.”

Katherine, with a chuckle: “That’s kind of how I’ve always been. Caroline’s the most initially outgoing, and it takes me, like, two years to warm up to people.”

Caroline: “So, the first year we parted ways a little bit, and it was kind of bizarre.”

It’s come full circle. Now, they finish each other’s thoughts, one cutting across the other with the seamlessness of genuine camaraderie. The goal this season, as it is every year at a program of Villanova’s stature, is to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

After that, the paths may diverge. Katherine wants to pursue a master’s degree that will propel her toward a career in real estate, and she’s got her eyes turned toward a program offered by universities in northern England or Ireland. Two of her former Villanova teammates have pursued the same path, and it’s a pretty good gig. Keep playing basketball while you get a free education at one of the best institutions in the world.

Caroline will likely pursue a route more along the professional grade. “She’ll have to get an agent, do all that cool stuff,” Katherine says of the coming spring.

That’s still a ways away: for now, the twins are trying to ride this wave as long as they can. Basketball, together, is just too much fun.

It transfers into their leadership, as seniors. Both are captains, and they tell you in tandem that the way they go about leading is 100 percent different. When they get together to deliver a message, they feel it’s more effective, but there’s something to be said about a more individual approach, too.

Says Katherine, “Caroline has always been more vocal, through our entire experience here. And she’s our best player. So people have always seen her as the leader, whereas I do, like, the little things. Leading by example, things like that.

“But when I do have something to say, people usually do listen to me (to which Caroline injects an ‘Oh yeah!’) because I usually haven’t said anything for a really long time!”

Says Caroline, “I feel like when I say something, people will be like, ‘OK…’, but when Katherine says something, it’s like, ‘Yes ma’am.

“I can be a little blunt sometimes,” Katherine says.

“And I’m like, Dang, maybe I should take a page out of her book,” Caroline says.

Says Joe Mullaney, “They’re just really good kids, and good students, and they’ve had a great four years. We’re gonna miss them big time, when they leave.”

Images courtesy of Villanova Athletic Media Relations