By Mark Gregory
As if being the No. 1 women’s basketball team in NAIA Division II isn’t impressive enough, the way that University of St. Francis coach Sam Quigley-Smith has built her program may be even more amazing.
Of the 18 players that currently make up the Fighting Saints’ roster, 10 of them come from hometowns within 30 miles of the university, 16 are within 100 miles and all but one are natives of Illinois.
Seven of the athletes, in fact, went to schools in the greater Will County area with three players on the USF roster from Joliet Catholic Academy, one from Providence, one from Romeoville and one from Joliet Central.
“This is fun,” Quigley-Smith said. “From a coaching perspective, I have been watching some of these kids since they were in seventh and eighth grade. It is cool when you see them develop in high school and you are close enough to go watch them and then to get them on the team. These are girls I have been watching for eight or nine years and now I get to coach them.”
Currently, the Saints sit 16-0 overall and 9-0 in Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference play after defeating conference foe and the No. 3 ranked team in the nation St. Xavier in Chicago.
“When you go on the road, you are going to get the other team’s best basketball,” Quigley-Smith said after the game. “They practice in here every day and when they are as good of a three-point shooting team as they are, I thought we did a great job for the most part on their perimeter players and that is hard to do.
“We are trying to lead up to be playing our best basketball in February and March and I think we are playing good basketball right now, but it is really important to play our best at the end. In the last few weeks, with our opponents getting tougher, we have to elevate our play, so coming here and beating them in their gym is nice.”
Offensively, the Saints were paced by Charnelle Reed and Bolingbrook graduate Kamari Jordan, who tallied 20 points apiece.
Jordan scored 14 points in the opening quarter, knocking down all four of her three-point attempts.
“My teammates got me pumped before the game and just told be to shoot the ball,” Jordan said. “There have been a few games where I didn’t shoot or I didn’t think I was shooting as well. They just told me throw it up there and they will get the rebound – but they didn’t need to.”
Jordan said the win over the Cougars vindicated the Saints’ position atop the national rankings.
“This solidifies everything that we have been working for. For the three years, we have been working hard and we wanted to be No. 1 and a lot of people, I think, doubted that the No. 1 team was us, but I think we proved it,” she said.
Working hard is nothing new to Jordan, who played for Tony Smith at Bolingbrook.
“I know about hard work. He pushed me hard early and I remember those things in times like this where I am tired or I am not shooting too well, I push through,” she said. “If you can get through one of Tony’s practices, you can get through this.”
St. Francis also got 16 points from Kaitlin Aylward and 14 from Bolingbrook native and JCA graduate Christina Ekhomu.
While the Saints had four players in double digits, the real win may have been on the defensive side, as USF held St. Xavier’s Kara Krolicki to 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting and only 1-of-3 from three-point land.
Krolicki came in averaging 20.88 points per game and was one of only six players in the nation averaging more than 20 points per contest. She was guarded most of the game by Romeoville graduate Angelica Osusky.
“We did a great job defensively limiting one of the best scorers in the nation – if not the best scorer in the nation,” said Quigley-Smith. “We limited her touches and she was a focus of ours. Angelica Osusky is really our unsung hero. She busts her butt on the defensive end and that is something that gets lost on the stat sheet. To hold one of the best scorers in the nation under her average or even if she gets her 20, to make her not shoot well is important.”
Even though the win will make sure St. Francis retains its No. 1 ranking another week, it is not something the players look at too much.
“Every time we try and look at that, our coaches bring us down a level,” Jordan said. “We have to stay humble because Sam keeps us humble. She is a humble person herself and that reflects on us. If we do try and look up, she reminds us, that yeah, we are No. 1, but people are coming for us.”
This season Osusky, Jordan and Ekuomu have started all 16 games for the Saints and aided in the success.
Ekhumo is second of the team in scoring, averaging 11.9 points per game and is first on the team with 65 assists. Jordan is fourth on the Saints in scoring with 10.7 points per game, while Osusky averages 4.9 points per contest.
However, even the players that come off the bench understand what it means to be part of the successful group of local athletes.
“Being a freshman, I have watched Christine, Ang(elica) and Kamari growing up and I have played against some of them in high school and now having the chance to play with them is a big honor and having Sam as our coach is great,” said freshman Ashley Hare, a Joliet Central graduate that is averaging 2.4 points per game. “And now, we are No. (1) in the nation and this is cool. There is so much talent in the Joliet area that people miss because they are always concerned about what is going on outside the area. But there is a lot going on at schools like West, Central, Bolingbrook, JCA and Providence and there is a ton of talent there.”
Quigley-Smith says the reason for the success of the program is not only the talent of the local players, but their character and upbringing.
“Our girls do a great job once they get here of working. They are not satisfied with a scholarship or part scholarship. They want to be better players and better people. We try and find great people from great families and I think that is what makes this all something special,” said Quigley-Smith, a JCA and DePaul graduate. “We have families that can come to games and come out and watch them. I was a kid that stayed home and I thought it was great that I could go out to dinner with my parents after the game and a lot of these girls get to do that.”
Not only do the players get to spend time with family after a game, they get to play in front of them and that is something Osusky says she feels has helped the success.
“It is great because we get the fan base out and I personally think it changes the game to have fans that can come to drive and support us,” she said. “It really means a lot to us.”
The one thing that could be a downfall to merging a lot of local talent on one team is trying to make a team out of former rivals. That, however, has not been the case at USF.
“It is a lot more fun with all these local kids. To be able to play at home in front of friends and family is a good feeling,” Ekhomu said. “It is great how we come together. With me coming from Joliet Catholic, we didn’t really like Providence too much because we were rivals and now I have a Providence player on my team and we just come together and it is a great community feeling. It is great to stay home and just represent.”