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New coach Rebecca Tillett bringing pieces together for SLU women's basketball

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St. Louis University names new women's basketball coach Rebecca Tillett

Rebecca Tillett laughs at a joke made by St. Louis University President Fred Pestello, not pictured, during a news conference announcing her as the university's next women's basketball head coach at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

As she began to assess and assemble the pieces that would make up her first women’s basketball team at St. Louis University, coach Rebecca Tillett was maneuvering between two worlds.

There was the program she had been hired to oversee at SLU — the one still looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance — and the players and coaches at Longwood, which reached the tournament in March.

Tillett found the Billikens had some good returning contributors. She also came to realize that some of her former players and coaches were interested in moving on.

This summer, she is working to blend the resulting ingredients into a unit she hopes will quickly have an impact in the Atlantic 10. She is working with a roster that includes seven returning players, five transfers, including four from Longwood, and three incoming freshmen.

“We’re building one cohesive unit,” she said. “It’s not the previous players over here and the transfers and the freshmen. We all have to come together in order for us to be elite, which is what we’re trying to do.”

The Billikens lost a pair of transfers after last season, most notably guard Ciaja Harbison, who became the No. 2 all-time leading scorer at SLU before heading to Vanderbilt. The top returning player is post Brooke Flowers, who is No. 1 in career blocked shots and No. 2 in rebounds.

The standout among the transfers is guard Kyla McMakin, a three-time All-Big South player who averaged 18.1 points and became Longwood’s all-time leading scorer before departing.

They are likely to be key figures in a reconfigured offense that Tillett hopes will produce more scoring threats and ultimately more than the 59.8 points the Billikens managed last season.

“One thing we’re trying to do is have five on the court at all times that have to be guarded,” she said. “As soon as you put someone on the floor who doesn’t have to be guarded, you open the opportunity for great coaches to scheme and do things against you.”

With four players and multiple coaches who were at Longwood, Tillett has many of the links to an NCAA Tournament team that won a play-in game before losing to No. 1 seed North Carolina State.

They made the field as the automatic qualifier from the Big South. Tillett recognizes that she and others from Longwood are stepping into a higher level of play in the A-10.

“There’s a steep learning curve,” she said. “We’re trying to speed that process up for us in terms of the staff and players. The culture can only be sped up so much. The best programs can speed it up. I don’t know how fast but that’s what we’re trying to do. There was a level of success here that many programs would envy. Now let’s see if we can go a step further. All of us are driven by those goals.”

SLU was 9-18 last season with a team that was ravaged by injuries. Things got so bad that the Billikens were reduced to as few as six players for a game. Prior to the 2021-22 season, coach Lisa Stone led the Billikens to four WNIT appearances and five winning records in six seasons.

Tillett took Longwood from the bottom of the Big South to the top in four years. If and when she gets SLU to the NCAA Tournament, it would mark the first time since the program started in 1975.

“We all talk about it,” she said. “As we were getting to know each other, Brooke said to the team, ‘I want to do it this season. This is my chance.’ It was such a powerful moment for our team to hear her blatantly say it. To even have a chance, you have to start talking about doing it.”

Among the returning players are guards Marisa Warren, Kiley Bess and Julia Martinez and forward Peyton Kennedy, who averaged from 5.0 to 7.9 points last season. Also arriving from Longwood are guards Kennedy Calhoun and Briana Johns, both of whom started. Guard Camree Clegg transferred from St. John’s.

In McMakin, Tillett believes she has a scorer whose skills would translate to any level of play. Flowers will be one of the top returning players in the A-10.

How well the various entities blend will tell a lot about how much SLU will improve in Tillett’s first season The Billikens are only a year removed from playing in the postseason WNIT.

“We have a lot of people who know my system,” Tillett said. “What is great is that those players are being challenged now by better defenders or more size than before. We need to compete every day now to get better, and if we do that good things will happen.”

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