The lone senior on the Loyola women’s basketball team knew her days playing in the maroon and gold were winding down, but she didn’t think it would be over quite yet.
Tiara Wallace and the rest of the women’s basketball team were already in Moline for the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) tournament — known as Hoops in the Heartland — when the announcement was made that the tournament would be canceled due to concerns about COVID-19, the illness caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus. As of publication, there have been over 1,200 confirmed cases in Illinois, including a Loyola student.
“When the season ended, there were a lot of mixed emotions,” Wallace, 22, said. “Of course I was sad. It was something that we weren’t prepared for, so when it happened, we tried our best to give the best ‘see you laters’ that we could at that moment because we thought we had more time together.”
Heading into the tournament, the Ramblers were the No. 8 seed and set to play No. 9-seeded Indiana State University. The game was set for March 12 at 4 p.m., and the news of the cancelation came just a few hours prior.
As a team, the Ramblers tumbled down the MVC standings toward the end of the season, ending the year on a seven-game losing streak. But on an individual level, Wallace was playing the best basketball of her career. After having never reached the 20-point mark, Wallace managed to score 20 points on four occasions in the final nine games.
Over the final nine regular season games, Wallace averaged a team-high 16.4 points per game. Up until that point, Wallace averaged 7.3 points per contest.
Her scoring ability was on full display Feb. 8 in a win over the University of Evansville. Wallace put up a career-high 26 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the field and a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line. In that game, she also grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds and dished out six assists without committing a turnover.
Achter said she thinks Wallace’s outburst toward the end of the season was due to a blend of confidence and urgency.
“All this other stuff and petty things like being frustrated with officials or being frustrated with herself for her own misses or defensive screw-ups, it doesn’t matter because she’s running on time,” Achter said. “That’s a stark reality for any senior.”
After the Ramblers lost to the University of Northern Iowa 73-70 March 1, Achter said she felt like Wallace was playing with a “refuse to lose” mentality and that the team was comfortable putting the ball in her hands at the end of games. Against the Panthers, Wallace tied her career-high with 26 points — 19 of which came in the second half — in her final game at Gentile Arena.
After that game, Achter raved about how Wallace had bought into the program. Achter said Wallace has been on board ever since Achter took control of the women’s basketball program after the departure of former head coach Sheryl Swoopes following allegations of player mistreatment.
“‘T’ has chosen to trust us,” Achter said. “She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to do that when we took over in August of 2016, and truthfully she doesn’t have to do that every day now. But she did, and it’s completely flipped the switch on our program.”
Wallace was the last of the players recruited by Swoopes on Loyola’s roster. Over the course of Wallace and Achter’s four years together at Loyola, the Ramblers have experienced a rebuild that started at ground zero. In their first year together, Loyola went just 2-28.
But the team’s record has improved each year, with the Ramblers finishing this season at 15-14 — the program’s first winning season since 2012-13. After the MVC tournament got canceled, Achter called her team together for one last talk.
“She gave us a speech just saying that we had so much unfinished business and she gave me a personal speech thanking me for staying along this whole process of rebuilding for the women’s program,” Wallace said. “Before we parted our ways … we gave each other a long hug. We had that respect for each other.”
Achter credits Wallace — one of the team’s captains along with junior forward Abby O’Connor — as being one of the key pieces during the ongoing rebuilding process.
“‘T’ has been there for me since the beginning,” O’Connor said. “I am so appreciative of especially this past year we’ve had together as captains and being able to talk and figure out how we wanted to lead the team. ‘T’ is such a lifesaver, she’s always there. Even this season when I’ve had rough nights, she’s the first one to tell me I got the next one.”
These leadership and inspirational qualities could come in handy as Wallace tries to transition into the next stage of her life. She said she wasn’t quite done with basketball, but her playing days are behind her. Instead, she plans to help her former Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) — a competitive youth travel basketball league — team for a little bit before trying to land an internship in marketing.
Despite the coronavirus causing the season to come to an abrupt end and forcing people to remain in their homes, Wallace said she was able to find a silver lining: it’s given her a chance to catch up on family time.
“Currently, I feel like I’m on house arrest,” Wallace said. “[I’m] watching my niece. Over the four years, I’ve been playing basketball so much that I missed time with my family, so I’m just trying to gain that back right now.”