Alix Membreno was not about to give up on basketball.
Never mind that she had set a New Mexico high school record in the javelin and also won the state title in the discus, catching the eye of Carla Criste, Navy’s longtime track and field coach. And forget the fact that she hadn’t received any Division I scholarship offers in basketball. The hardwood continued to entice Membreno, and the thought of going without was no longer an arrangement with which she was comfortable.
So she sought guidance from Phil Griego, her high school basketball coach at Saint Pius X in Albuquerque, and the telephone conversation wound up altering the course of Membreno’s athletic life.
“I was like, ‘Hey Phil, I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t do this Navy stuff,’ ” Membreno recalled of her doubt-filled time at the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island, where she spent a postgraduate year before enrolling in the academy as a plebe who would compete solely in track and field. “I want to go play ball somewhere. It’s just not going to work.”
Griego suggested instead she reach out to Navy women’s basketball Coach Stefanie Pemper, and Membreno eventually came to Annapolis for a visit. Because Pemper initially had not recruited Membreno, the coaching staff was able to evaluate the 5-foot-9 guard only on film, but that body of work was compelling enough to find a place for her on the roster.
These days as a junior, Membreno is participating in both sports at Navy, whose basketball team is the No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament’s Bridgeport Region and will play second-seeded Kentucky (27-5) in the first round Sunday in Queens, N.Y. The Midshipmen (21-11) earned their third consecutive NCAA tournament berth by becoming the second program in Patriot League history to win the conference tournament three straight times.
“I can talk about Alix for days,” junior point guard Kara Pollinger said. “The things that she does for this team are so much more than the statistics that she puts up. Obviously she’s a great defender, and that really doesn’t go into the paper much. She’s great for hustle plays, and she’s great for leadership, and that stuff really doesn’t get recognized.”
In three seasons, Membreno has played in all 94 games, including 83 consecutive starts; been named to the Patriot League all-tournament team three straight times; and most recently was voted tournament MVP after Navy beat Holy Cross, 72-53, in the championship game March 16.
During the Patriot League tournament, Membreno totaled 38 points, 28 rebounds and 21 assists over three games. In a 60-48 win against Bucknell in the semifinals March 11, she finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks, nearly becoming the first player in Patriot League tournament history to record a triple-double.
Membreno seamlessly manages every role and position for the Midshipmen, moving from primary ballhandler to low-post threat to three-point sharpshooter to defensive nuisance. In the tournament championship game, for instance, Membreno had 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals. She did not commit a foul and had two turnovers in 31 minutes.
“She’s gotten to a point now where there really isn’t anything she can’t do,” Pemper said. “She’s just smart. She communicates really well with teammates. She really sees the game, and if something doesn’t go as was planned, she talks it over with people. It’s like she doesn’t want to let anything go that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.”
Case in point was Membreno spending two hours in the gym shooting free throws after going 0 for 15 from the field against Lehigh in Navy’s penultimate regular season game. The Midshipmen won, 49-34, thanks in part to forcing 22 turnovers that helped offset 28 percent shooting and missing 20 of 25 three-pointers.
Membreno’s mental disposition was somewhat out of kilter that night given the then-uncertain condition of her grandfather, who had a stroke following a game against Army in mid-February. Membreno spent many sleepless nights worrying about the man she calls her best friend, and it affected her usually meticulous preparation.
During free periods she would drive to a nearby hospital to visit with him. At the very least, she would call as often as possible. Distracted virtually around the clock and running herself ragged, Membreno’s game suffered.
“I think it took a while for me to realize if I keep this up, I’m not only short-changing myself, I’m short-changing my teammates,” said Membreno, whose grandfather continues to recover at a Maryland rehab center. “So I was kind of like, I’ve got to get myself together.”
That she did, compiling a game-high 18 points with eight rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal in the regular season finale. Over the last four games, Membreno is averaging 14 points, nine rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 blocks and one steal.
For the season, she’s second on the team in scoring (11.4), rebounding (6.8), assists (3.5) and field goal percentage (.426). Memebreno also is first in steals (1.6), third in blocks with 14 overall and fourth in three-pointers made (32).
“Alix is very selfless. She’s very inspiring in the way she plays because she just plays with so much heart,” Pollinger said. “I think the way she leads the team is the same way. She just cares so much about every person. I mean she’s an amazing person to play with.”