The Loyola women’s basketball team jumped out to a program-best 9-0 start and currently sits at 12-3. But where did this hot start come from?
After last year’s squad went 13-18 overall, this success has come as a surprise to some.
The answer to that question lies largely with the starting lineup, which has accounted for 74.4 percent of Loyola’s points this season. Tiara Wallace, Janae Gonzales, Ellie Rice, Abby O’Connor and Allison Day have started every game for the Ramblers this season.
“I think the starting five stays the same because they earn their minutes,” head coach Kate Achter said. “They find consistency in practice together, and we find consistency in those lineups. It just gives them the confidence to start a basketball game off [right].”
That consistency dates back to last season, when the same five players started 10 games for Loyola. The group got its run in the middle of conference play, going 5-5 until Gonzales went down with a foot injury that forced Achter to switch things up.
Overall, Loyola was 6-12 during Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) play, including five straight losses to end the regular season after Gonzales’ injury.
The starting lineup fits like a puzzle, with each member bringing different strengths and weaknesses to the table. They fit together to create a formidable starting lineup, one that nearly knocked off a ranked team on two separate occasions — DePaul University Dec. 20 and Missouri State University Jan. 3.
Gonzales’ piece of the puzzle comes in the form of her shooting ability, which has helped space the floor and allow the offense more room to operate since defenders don’t want to leave her open, Achter said.
The sophomore guard has hit three-pointers with a higher volume and efficiency than anybody else in the conference. Gonzales has connected on 42 triples at a 42.9 percent clip — both leading the MVC. O’Connor is the only other Rambler to make double-digit threes so far this year with 25 made threes on 34.2 percent shooting.
“Janae Gonzales, her shooting ability kind of speaks for itself,” Achter said. “She spreads the floor for us which allows us to play in that ball screen offense. She’s certainly gotten better at taking better shots — what we call, ‘Great shots, not good ones.’”
As for O’Connor, she leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Achter acknowledged the junior forward’s on-court production, but said she’s most impressed with O’Connor’s intangibles.
“Her growth, for me, is in the leadership area,” Achter said. “She takes care of her business, as far as the offense is concerned. At times, she’s really been lackluster in that area this season, but she’s hitting her stride.”
Moving along to the other junior in the starting lineup, Rice brings much to the team that doesn’t show up in the box score, according to Achter.
“Ellie Rice has kind of been our do-it-all rag doll, and I mean that in the most affectionate way ever,” Achter said. “Ellie would do anything I ask her to do, whether it’s playing on a broken ankle or if she’s completely healthy. And that gives us a certain toughness, so it’s really hard to keep her out of the lineup, even if she’s not making baskets.”
Rice’s versatility and defensive prowess was on clear display against Southern Illinois University. The Ramblers won by two points and held junior guard Makenzie Silvey — who entered the game as the MVC’s leading scorer — to just two points on 1-for-10 shooting in the process. Rice managed to score seven points and grab six rebounds while being Silvey’s primary defender.
Rice isn’t the only lockdown defender in Loyola’s lineup. Wallace, the only senior on the roster, is a pest for the opposition’s lead ball handler, racking up at least three steals in a game on five different occasions this season.
“I think [Wallace] has taken the biggest leap, especially from a mental perspective,” Achter said. “It may not be points that you see on a stat sheet, but Tiara has really kept under control and been a defensive pillar for us on the other end.”
Wallace can be turnover-prone at times, averaging nearly four turnovers each game, but she is still one of the best distributors in the MVC. Her assists per game jumped from 3.6 last season to 4.7 this year, which is currently the second-highest mark in the conference. Wallace’s 1.7 steals per contest also ranks fifth in the MVC.
The fifth and final member of Loyola’s starting five is Day. The sophomore center joined the starting lineup for conference play last season after Kat Nolan went down with a foot injury. Achter said Day struggled at times with the increased role last season, but overall it helped her become the offensive force in the paint that she’s been this season.
“Allison Day has just grown tremendously,” Achter said. “I think her maturity and her confidence has changed. Being thrown into the fire a year ago because Kat Nolan got hurt really helped her. At the time, it didn’t feel like that for her, and she really struggled. But she is more able to handle difficult situations this season because of what she went through last season.”
From a statistical standpoint, Day has arguably made the biggest jump from last year to this year. The sophomore center went from averaging 6.7 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting to averaging 12.9 points per game — the second-highest mark on Loyola’s roster and 12th overall in the MVC — on 54.5 percent shooting.
The Ramblers still have 14 games remaining in the regular season, but the starting five has helped lead Loyola to third place in the MVC standings.
Next, Loyola is set to welcome Bradley University to Gentile Arena Jan. 17 at 3 p.m. The game is scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN+.