For the millions of athletes who have moved on from formal competition, the simple act of suiting up might be the thing they miss the most. The wisest players know each game just takes you closer to your last run, so it makes sense to embrace each opportunity.
With that mindset, the Saint Mary’s women’s basketball team has found value in something of an outlier in the world of NCAA D-I hoops, as the Gaels are preparing for their ninth consecutive year of playing in the Postseason WNIT. While it’s certainly possible to be frustrated that an NCAA Tournament berth has been a “so close, yet so far” topic, Saint Mary’s head coach Paul Thomas is not the type to sit in a darkened office and sulk.
With seniors looking to close their careers on a high note, and younger players bound to benefit from a taste of the postseason (four of the five starters are returning next season), the Gaels are all in.
“We enjoy playing in the WNIT – of course every team in America, once the season starts, is preparing to get your team to the NCAA Tournament. We’re no different; we schedule accordingly so we can (make a claim) for an at-large bid if necessary,” said Thomas, whose team is 20-10 overall and will play at New Mexico (23-10) on Thursday in the first round. “With every game, and to have the excitement and momentum build … the anticipation of the next opponent, where we will play, it all adds up. There’s intrigue in the WNIT, as I’ve had 30 people call and ask me questions (before matchups were announced). It’s an interesting piece of this tournament. Sure, we’d like to know certain things (earlier) because it affects their academic life, but the players enjoy the anticipation as well.”
Saint Mary’s, the automatic qualifier for the WNIT out of the West Coast Conference, was riding a five-game winning streak heading into the WCC Tournament but fell 77-73 to Portland. Those kinds of losses are hard to overcome when NCAA bids are determined, and the Gaels understood their fate immediately.
“Every person in the program knows they do all the hard work in the season. We don’t talk about (a tough loss), because we’re not here trying to prove we belong in the NCAA Tournament,” Thomas said. “We are fully aware we didn’t do our job in the regular season and in the tournament, so to keep bringing it up … that’s never been our rallying cry. We are realistic – playing in a mid-major category, bad losses are bad losses. You try your very best, but they will occur. And it rarely makes it up to get a good win. We had a loss at Portland, but a win at Gonzaga against a very strong, well-respected program didn’t make up for that.”
With eyes wide open, Saint Mary’s certainly has the tools to make a WNIT run (the program reached the quarterfinals in 2013 and 2015). Three players – senior Stella Beck and juniors Megan McKay and Sydney Raggio – have topped the 1,000-point mark in career scoring, and the team sits in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage.
To keep that offense purring, the Gaels will have to reel in one troubling trend, which is all about turnovers. Saint Mary’s had 29 in the loss to Pacific and averages more than 18 a game, which puts them 311th in the NCAA D-I rankings.
Usually a team with turnover issues is one that plays so fast that its field-goal shooting is also compromised, but not so for Saint Mary’s. Thomas likes his teams to play with freedom and instinct, although the sight of another pass sailing off-target might spark a splitting headache.
“I’ve had this conversation with everybody. Turnovers have been an Achilles' heel for quite some time, and I’m talking about years, not just games. You can’t imagine what we’ve done to try and correct it,” he said. “I won’t talk too much about free throw troubles, but it’s not in my nature to not say something about turnovers. They grind on me; I’ve thought about just letting it go, but I can’t.
“We came up with a new method in practice, something different but fun – we’ve created a Turnover Box, like an penalty box in hockey. We taped off a little section, and if you got put in there, you’d have to do burpees, planks and some ball-handling things. You did that, then could come back and get in the drill or whatever we were doing. The only thing we haven’t tried is me not saying anything. We know it’s kept us from winning games, from advancing, from playing our best basketball.”