Senior spotlights: Women’s basketball seniors “held down the fort” for rebuilding program


Arthur Mansavage

Senior guard Chelsea Gibbons leads the huddle against Coast Guard on Feb. 18.

By Leo Kagan, Assistant Sports Editor

Chelsea Gibbons and Carla Pelino joined the Emerson women’s basketball team as two of the three first years on the 2019–20 roster.

They integrated into a Lions squad that roared its way to a 15-11 record, and its third NEWMAC postseason appearance in three seasons. Though the 2019–20 Lions fell again in the first round of the playoffs, the team had a strong core in place and was poised for a bright future.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  

In the winter of 2020, the entire women’s and men’s basketball seasons were canceled. When winter sports resumed activity in late 2021, the women’s basketball team had graduated or lost nearly every player with any college ball experience

Suddenly, Gibbons and Pelino were thrust into much larger roles as leaders of a young and inexperienced basketball team. 

Now, the pair are at what is most likely the conclusion of their college basketball careers—both are eligible for a post-grad year but have indicated to Head Coach Bill Gould that they likely won’t return. Continuing a series of stories highlighting the impact of seniors across Emerson’s sports teams, The Beacon found out what Gibbons and Pelino brought to their team, and where they will most be missed. 

Chelsea Gibbons – Guard

Gibbons is a good shooter: her 447 career points and 31.1 percent three-point percentage is evidence enough. But junior guard Ava Salti said to label her as just a strong shooter would be painting an incomplete picture of the type of player Gibbons really is. 

“That would just be blatant disrespect—she does so much more than [shoot],” Salti said. “If she gets the ball and starts driving downhill, you’re not stopping her.”

Salti alluded to Gibbons’ competitive edge, something that you only notice if you watch her for long enough, according to Gould.

“There may be a game where Chelsea hasn’t played great,” he said. “And if that’s the only game you’ve ever seen of Chelsea, you might not necessarily think that she’s a great player. But just wait until we play a rival or one of the better teams in our league. Who can you absolutely, 100 percent count on to play a great game? Chelsea.”

That competitive edge proved to be beneficial to the team, something Gould tried to draw out of Gibbons before important match-ups.

“Every time we did a scout, she would almost try to find a kid that she just didn’t like,” he said. “She would find a way to be like, ‘I don’t like that.’ Recognizing that, if I wanted her to guard somebody, I would tell her a few things to [rile her up].”

Salti said Gibbons’ compete level was through the roof—something that shone through as a leadership quality. 

“As a competitor, [she’s] second to none,” Salti said. “We could be down by 30 and she’s still going for a steal, still gonna dive out of bounds to get the ball. If you don’t have a captain doing that, then no one else is gonna do it. She definitely plays with a chip on her shoulder and for my time playing sports, the best teams, the best players, they all have a chip on their shoulder.”

Salti added that Gibbons’ ability to channel her mean streak into results is something she tries to model her own game after. 

“It’s really easy to put your frustration the wrong way sometimes,” Salti said. “[Chelsea’s] competitive, she’s frustrated, but somehow she always seems to use it the right way.”

Salti said she formed a close bond with Gibbons, who was instrumental in recruiting Salti as the first person she spoke to about Emerson basketball. 

“She just told me that the Emerson basketball program is a place where good people enjoy playing basketball,” Salti said. “At that point […] it wasn’t about how good we were, it was about how good we were gonna become. And she seemed so sure that I was gonna become a better basketball player and, more importantly, a better human being for being on that team.”

As a leader, Salti said, Gibbons’ presence will linger long after she’s graduated. 

“Who she is as a person, as a leader, as a basketball player—I think that’s something that we’ll all try and emulate as we go further into our college careers,” Salti said. “She’s the blueprint for sure.”

Carla Pelino – Forward 

Pelino tallied 334 career points as a Lion, a cut below Gibbons’ 447. But while Pelino was a consistent offensive contributor, it was in her own end of the court that she truly shone. Gould said some of her defensive talent can be attributed to her natural athletic gifts, but that her skill transcends pure athleticism. 

“Sometimes, kids who have that level of athleticism don’t have to do all the gritty things to get better,” Gould said. “But she evolved to become a really bright player: she’s a phenomenal defensive player, and that’s not something that [happens because] you’re just tall or athletic. You have to have a knowledge of the game.” 

Her high-functioning basketball brain made Pelino an unparalleled shutdown guard, Gould added. 

“She’s one of the best defensive players I’ve ever coached here,” he said. “Some kids are great on-the-ball defensive players, but they’re not good off the ball or [on the] team defensive. Some kids are really good team defensively, but they can’t guard someone [individually]. Carla was really good at both.”

Salti said that Pelino was not only the team’s defensive MVP, but also a higher-caliber leader. 

“She’s like the best defender that I’ve ever played with, [she’s] the anchor of our defense,” Salti said. “She inspired everyone to play hard on defense.”

Gould said that Pelino’s defensive expertise made her the team’s leading guard, sometimes asked to guard multiple players at once, even if it was an uncomfortable task.  

“The sacrifice that Carla made was just willingly sacrificing her comfort level,” he said. “Sometimes it looked to the untrained eye that Carla’s player scored a lot of points. She sacrificed what it would look like to the average fan, that ‘Oh, Carla didn’t play good defense.’ Well, people who know the game of basketball knew that Carla played a great defensive game.”

In many ways, Gould said Pelino’s defensive prowess aligns with her leadership style. 

“There’s a lot of different kinds of leaders, and Carla’s biggest strength is just the ability to literally embrace the team and say, ‘I’ll take care of things,’” he said. “She wants what’s best for everybody, and so she’s the most unselfish kid.”

Alongside Gibbons, Pelino was asked to mature rapidly as a leader, something Salti said she saw as a benefit. 

“It’s weird for her and Chelsea because they didn’t have a sophomore season,” she said. “They’re only one season into playing college basketball, and then their next season they’re starting and they’re basically captains […] It’s probably a really hard spot, but they both did as well as anyone I could imagine.”

“The perfect mesh”

Salti said Gibbons and Pelino, as great as they are as individuals, seemed to be even better together. 

“Chelsea and Carla, they were like the perfect balance,” she said. “When [Gould] said he picked the two seniors to be captains this year, I wasn’t sure what the dynamic would be, but they’re the perfect mesh. Everything that Carla doesn’t bring in the voice and the loudness and the outspokenness, that’s what Chelsea brings. Together, they brought everything you need within leaders.”

Salti said that their impact as leaders will be felt beyond the 2022–23 season—that any Lions success next year will be in part owed to their guidance. 

“If we go on and win the first playoff game in program history [next year], Chelsea and Carla should get rings or recognition,” she said. “They played a huge role in whatever comes next because of the mark they left on all of us.”

Gould said that this year’s graduating seniors remind him of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball players of the late 1980s and 90s: a group of young role players who stuck around to rebuild a tarnished program after a serious cheating scandal

“With Carla and Chelsea, they didn’t play at all [their freshman year],” he said. “They had a really tough junior year and even this year, we just didn’t do as well as we had hoped to do. But the fact that they were able to hold down the fort […] that, to me, is where I’ll give them credit. [They’re] not the best players that ever played here. But to me, they’ll be some of the most important kids that ever played here.”