Photo by Mitchell Leff
If Lisa Stone felt she had an artistic touch when it came to building a basketball team, she certainly confronted a blank canvas when she took over at Saint Louis University.
Stone, who had worked the sidelines for 25 seasons before coming to SLU in 2012-13, didn’t need much time to see how the Billikens were a missed opportunity, something just begging to blossom. Sure, there were some bleak stretches that could dampen enthusiasm (the team was 26-161, a .139 winning percentage, for the first seven seasons in the 1990s), but Stone couldn’t help notice the positive qualities of her new job.
In terms of recruiting, Stone’s ability to highlight SLU’s charms was authentic from the start, given the fact her son is a student there. From a basketball standpoint, all the pieces seemed ready to assemble – enthusiastic tones from the administration, an attractive arena, and a campus environment designed to attract bright, high-achieving people.
The breakthrough came with a vengeance this season – the Billikens set school records for overall victories, Atlantic-10 wins and road victories in going 24-7 overall. As it stands, several days before the NCAA and WNIT brackets are determined, Saint Louis will participate in one of those events, giving the program its second-ever look at a postseason tournament (the Billikens were one-and-done in the 2003 WNIT).
“With all of these resources, everything’s been in place. I wanted to do something that’s never been done, and that was my vision,” Stone said. “Yes, it’s a culture change and yes, it’s a belief system, and you recruit great players, all looking to take a chance on a program that’s never been there. That’s how we’ve done it.
“It’s not about me moving mountains; we take it step by step. Recruiting has improved every year – players (like starting sophomore guards Jackie Kemph and Jenny Vliet) who were recruited by other high-level programs came here, and we sold them on Saint Louis like it was sold to me – we’ll do something that’s never been done. It’s happening, it’s just awesome. We’ve accomplished the goal of (moving on) – if it’s the WNIT we’re playing in, we’re thrilled, because the goal was getting to the postseason.”
Stone was named Atlantic-10 coach of the year after the Billikens shocked observers by tying for the league crown at 13-3. Kemph averaged 16.4 points and seven assists per game on the way to earning co-player of the year honors for the A-10; the team was blessed with continuity as five players all had 31 starts.
That steadiness helped, as Stone has had to deal with a rotation of assistant coaches over the years, many of whom have taken jobs at other D-1 programs. Much tougher was changing out the mindset of the roster.
“People were happy if they played well and the team lost. Now, if our best player has a sub-par game but we win, they are thrilled for the success of all players,” Stone added. “That’s hard in today’s society, but that’s how we are building. What we did this year is the stepping stone for the future. If you think it’s about you, you’re in the wrong place, and that’s an easier (tone) to carry, now that (we’ve) had some success.”
Saint Louis holds its opponents to less than 38 percent shooting from the field, which is an obvious key in the program’s ascent. Another factor is a stubborn insistence on moving the ball crisply but carefully. The Billikens are one of the rare teams that take layups super seriously, and have a very appealing assist-to-turnover ratio. Stone (a former point guard) never gets tired of that topic.
“We hang our hat on defense; that’s our identity. We have a system that’s maybe old school, but it works,” she said. “We defend, rebound and try to take care of the ball. It’s not a difficult defense to teach, but it’s a hard one to play, because it takes a lot of work.
“We have one of the best point guards in the country in Jackie Kemph, and I’m a fundamentalist. Pass, catch, move. Our margin of error is small, so we have to give ourselves chances and try not to beat ourselves. Women’s basketball gets a bad rap because there are so many turnovers, fouls and play stoppages, where you don’t see the purity of fundamentals. We look for good shots every possession, and for me, you have to be able to shoot the ball.”
From what was essentially a standing start, the Billikens are jumping into the conversation as a team on the rise.
“We’re getting better,” Stone added. “We don’t lead the nation in anything; we’re a really good basketball team that plays well together, defends, and is team-first.”