Using the previous 30 years as a gauge, the progress made by the St. Louis University women’s basketball team last season was significant, even if the Billikens again failed to break .500.
They were 15-16, beat a ranked opponent for the first time in 12 years and had several young players recognized with postseason Atlantic 10 honors. For coach Lisa Stone, it wasn’t enough.
“We fell short of where we wanted to be,” she said. “We wanted to be in the postseason. We finished just under .500, so we showed wonderful progress. We’ve incrementally gotten better every year. But we fell short, so we were disappointed we didn’t take an even larger step.”
However, the A-10 took notice. SLU, which returns all five starters and virtually all of its offensive output, was picked fifth in the conference this year. That’s three spots higher than the Billikens have ever finished. Stone is the latest coach to voice hope for a change in the program but appears to be the one closest to getting it done.
Leading the team’s search for its first winning record since 2002-03 will be Sadie Stipanovich, who was a second-team preseason all-conference selection, all-defensive selection Jamesia Price and all-rookie team member Jackie Kemph, who started every game at point guard last season.
“When you’re the only A-10 team to beat George Washington and you’re nose-to-nose with Dayton, there is definitely a sense of belief,” Stone said. “When I got here (people said) ‘Let’s just compete.’ That was the mantra. Now that’s over. That’s unsatisfactory in my book.”
SLU has played in one postseason in its history — the WNIT in 2003. The Billikens have posted two winning records since the 1986-87 season. They could have broken through last year if they had found a way to hold on to big leads. They fumbled away five double-digit leads, including a 20-point bulge on St. Bonaventure at home and a 17-point lead at Richmond.
But when they built a double-digit advantage against George Washington, they pushed it to 22 and never let up against a team that was 21-2.
The high points were promising and the low points stung.
The rise of Stipanovich (Westminster Christian) was among the most significant developments. The 6-foot-3 center averaged 15 points and seven rebounds to lead the team in both categories. She fell two points short of the school’s single-game scoring record with 35 points against George Mason.
Kemph played more minutes than anyone on the team as a freshman. She averaged 10 points and 5.6 assists. Other players who started a majority of the games last season include Price, who averaged 9.2 points, Jenny Vliet (6.9) and Olivia Jakubicek (6.1). And guard Erin Nelson (St. Joseph’s) is a scoring threat, having averaged 14 points as a freshman before dipping to 5.5 last season.
“We have to understand we have to play for one another,” Stone said. “No one here is good enough to win games by themselves. If we keep that humility and focus on taking care of what we can, hopefully we’ll have the end results.”
Stone has been building from the ground up since her arrival. Her teams have gone 12-19, 12-18 and 15-16. And although there is promise for something better this season, the roster remains one with future potential. SLU has only two seniors, Price and Denisha Womack.
Recruiting has seen an uptick. Kemph and Vliet were both rated among the top 25 players at their positions in high school by ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting.
Stone is entering her 30th season, so she knows the makings of a good team when she sees it. She took Drake to the NCAA Tournament twice and went one time with Wisconsin, where she posted a 128-119 record in eight seasons.
“I look in the rafters and see one banner, that’s it,” Stone said. “Those are visual goals. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”