April 3, 2024 

How Saint Louis is taking names and eating ice cream in the WNIT

Kyla McMakin: ‘It is fun creating history together with people you love’

Even after playing 38 games together this season, Saint Louis is still having fun, including a boisterous bus ride after securing a 65-60 win over Wisconsin on April 1 to send the team to its first WNIT Fab 4

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The team posted about its road win ice cream trip after its March 29 victory over Purdue Fort Wayne. On April 1, as her team chatted away on the bus, head coach Rebecca Tillett assured The Next “in SLU women’s basketball mind there’s always time for ice cream after a win,” even when just 44 hours separate the final buzzer of the team’s Great 8 game and tipoff of its Fab 4 game. 

After the game, several players mentioned having fun on this journey while making history and senior forward Peyton Kennedy said finding joy in moments, both big and small, has helped the team continue to have fun during their season, which has stretched almost five months. 

“People make other people laugh, we can count on so many teammates to do that,” she told The Next. “Dancing with each other, singing with each other, but also being focused and serious when serious times come. And I think that’s so important within the game. And within any environment you’re in to make sure that you have joy, because that’s what continues your season ultimately, and makes you go on these runs.” 

The Billikens led for nearly 37 minutes against the Badgers and by as many as 12 in the third quarter. Wisconsin would take the lead briefly twice late in the fourth quarter, but Saint Louis remained unfazed. A jumper by Kennedy, two steals by graduate student Julia Martinez and three players going a collective 4-6 from the free throw line led to a 6-0 run for Saint Louis to end the game after Wisconsin took a 60-59 lead with 59 seconds left. 

Tillett described Martinez’s steals as “monster defensive plays” and Martinez as one of the best “answerback” players in the country. She knew that her fifth-year player was going to make a big play when the team needed it. “If our team [makes] any mistake on either end, she then becomes the most dangerous woman on the floor on the other end,” Tillett said.

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Martinez finished the game with six points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. Graduate student guard Kyla McMakin led the team with 18 points and was joined in double figures by Kennedy and junior guard Kennedy Calhoun

Including the team’s win against Wisconsin, Saint Louis is 9-4 in games decided by one or two possessions. In a postgame interview with the Billikens radio broadcaster Colin Suhre, McMakin talked about how the experience in close games helped the team remain cool, calm and collected down the stretch, even as the team relinquished the lead.

Martinez also talked about the team’s huddles in timeouts down the stretch. “[In] all those huddles we were talking like, Hey, we’re good. We’re still in the lead. All we need is one stop. We need to get a rebound, secure those things, and at the end of the day, just play together, play hard, and that’s what we did,” she said. “Tillett and the whole coaching staff really helped us stay calm in those situations and our whole entire team — we all had a look at each other in the huddles, and it was a look of we’re not letting this go, like we’re winning this game.”

Her head coach echoed this sentiment.

“I just think our women right now just believe they will figure it out every time and that is such a powerful thing in a team environment,” Tillett said.

Continuing to learn and get better has been a key part of Saint Louis’ journey to the Fab 4. Tillett noted that the team talks about the difference between being willing, eager and curious — and aims to be curious.

“Willing means ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do that. I’m going to try to get better.’” she said. “Eager is like, ‘tell me more Coach, tell me teammates, how can I get better?’ And then curious is this higher level of thinking of how can we figure out something new today? And that’s what this team has really figured out along the way this season.” 

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Though Martinez is in her fifth season, and second under Tillett, she is still learning something new every day alongside her teammates.

“Always asking questions, just, the game of basketball, there’s so much to it,” she said. “And I don’t think anyone is a master of it because the game just grows and grows. So being able to learn in those areas I think is helping our team. And then being able to learn and then execute it quickly, learn from mistakes at a really high pace and being able to execute it on the court I think is what this team is really — is doing right now at this moment.” 

After the game, McMakin said that the program has been talking about playing in March since August. The team is now playing in April for the first time. Last season, the Billikens made the team’s first NCAA Tournament and with the win over Wisconsin, recorded the third 20-win season in program history and continues to re-write the team’s WNIT history this season. “It is fun creating history together with people you love,” she said. 

Martinez noted that any time you’re making history is memorable. “Being able to still make the WNIT and then make it to the Fab Four for the first time in SLU history is truly special with this group,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard and we know that we are so capable of being able to make this run, so actually showcasing it for people to see it’s just super fun that we’re able to actually do it.”

Saint Louis is scheduled to travel to Vermont to take on the Catamounts on April 3 at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

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Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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