In the midst of a rough season, the Loyola women’s basketball team (5-18, 3-9) is beginning to see the start to its rebuild, winning two of its last four contests in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC).
During the week-long stretch, the Ramblers picked up an 82-63 win over the University of Evansville Jan. 28 and a 71-61 victory over Bradley University in Peoria for their first MVC road win Feb. 4. The team followed this with a hot first half against Valparaiso University Feb. 11 but lost 63-53 after giving up a 30 point fourth quarter.
Head coach Kate Achter attributed the stretch to a collective effort and the team’s continuous improvement on chemistry — a sentiment reflected in the box score. Against Evansville, the team recorded its highest point total of the season, while dishing out a season-best of 22 assists.
“I feel like our ability to share the basketball has really improved, not even in just the last three games, but it’s more evident in the last three games and that contributes to us finding more success,” Achter said following the Bradley game.
At the forefront of this collective effort is a first-year class that’s gaining a lot of early experience. At times against Bradley, Achter went with a complete first-year lineup, as five of the seven Loyola players who checked into the game were first-years.
“I think that [the first-years] are playing within themselves,” Achter said. “I think that they’re playing confidently with each other and you’re seeing that on the floor finally.”
First-year Kailyn Strawbridge stepped up in the absence of injured redshirt senior guard Jessica Cerda to score a team-high 17 points with four three-pointers in the Bradley win. First-year forward Abby O’Connor, who leads the team in points and rebounds, continued her impressive debut season with 12 points and seven rebounds against the Braves.
Achter said she believes O’Connor has the ability to be the best player in the conference by the end of her career. In her short time at Loyola, she’s already made a major leap in progress.
“If you would have seen [O’Connor] as a scrawny … high school senior who could never shoot the basketball, you would have never realized she could do these things,” Achter said.
Senior forward Katie Salmon, who scored in double figures in both wins, said the Ramblers were playing better basketball before this hot stretch, but now the improvement is being reflected in the final score.
“We’ve always known what we were capable of, but maybe didn’t necessarily achieve it, or achieve it with a win … but the Bradley game really solidified [our good play] with a win,” Salmon said.
Strawbridge echoed Salmon’s thoughts and said the team had continued to buy in and remain confident despite its struggles.
“After the Illinois State loss, we were talking in the locker room and we collectively said that we believed in each other as a group and I think that gave us momentum for Bradley,” Strawbridge said.
Now, Achter said, the team’s on a mission to maintain this momentum going forward, which is done through consistency and doing whatever she can to keep her players in a groove.
“We’re hitting a nice little stride right now and anything to keep them consistent we’re going to try it,” Achter said.
One of those things Achter was willing to try was a dodgeball game between coaches and players in a recent practice.
“They weren’t hearing a lot of really good things from me at the moment and I just thought they needed something to smile about and feel good about each other and what better way than to hurl balls at your coaches?” Achter said.
With six games remaining before the conference tournament, the team is looking to finish with some wins to send its seniors off on a high note and carry momentum into next year. Achter said she’s confident the program is headed in the right direction.
“Any time you can get your kids to buy in and overachieve through chemistry, which is what I think we’ve got a little bit going on right now, I think your program can go anywhere with that,” Achter said.
The Ramblers are scheduled to take on Missouri State University and Southern Illinois University to round out a three-game homestand Feb. 16-18.