March 6, 2023 

Sights and sounds from Saint Louis’ first Atlantic 10 Tournament championship

'Started from the bottom', now Billikens are going dancing

WILMINGTON, Del. — As ‘We are the Champions’ echoed through Chase Fieldhouse, Brooke Flowers traded the 60-pound Atlantic 10 Championship trophy for Saint Louis’ newly-punched ticket to the program’s first NCAA Tournament. She waved the ticket above her head like she was at a concert, soaking in the team’s 91-85 overtime win over top-seeded UMass on March 5. 

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Flowers eventually traded the ticket for a pair of scissors to cut down the net. After a few snips with the scissors, she proudly waved around her piece of the net. She then carefully stepped down and paused to admire it and all she and the team have accomplished. 

Brooke Flowers waves around her piece of the net while standing on a ladder
Graduate student Brooke Flowers waves around her piece of the net after Saint Louis’ 91-85 overtime win over UMass on March 5. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

The Billikens were picked to finish 12th in the conference in October, started the season 1-5, entered conference play 4-11 and started conference play 2-5 all before eventually winning eight of their last nine games going into the A-10 tournament. In Wilmington, Saint Louis won three games in three days to become the seventh 3-seed to win the conference tournament. 

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Saint Louis hired head coach Rebecca Tillett on April 12, 2022, and in the team’s first meeting of this season, Flowers told them she came back to win a championship. 

Tillett and Flowers embraced after the game and Tillett reminded her of the initial story and told her that she spoke it into existence.

“It feels unreal, I’ve just kind of been looking around, taking it all in,” Flowers said in the post-game press conference. “I’m so thankful to everybody in this program and my teammates who just made all this possible. I just think that all of our hard work and everything that we’ve done and gone through together has just brought us to this moment. So, I’m just really thankful that I decided to stay here. My final year of basketball, it couldn’t have turned out any better.”

In its first A-10 championship game appearance in the school’s 18 years in the conference, it couldn’t have been any closer in the first half. The game was tied at 19 at the end of the first quarter and 37 at the half. 

Though UMass had an answer for nearly every Saint Louis run in the third quarter, Peyton Kennedy’s jump shot with 38 seconds left in the period gave the Billikens a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. 

Saint Louis sophomore Kennedy Calhoun opened the fourth quarter with an individual 5-0 run to stretch the team’s lead to eight. UMass made it a one-point game with 8.8 seconds to play after Sydney Taylor went 2-3 from the line after being fouled by Kyla McMakin. McMakin was fouled on the next play and sunk both her free throws to make it a 79-76 game. The Minutewomen had to bring the ball up the court to attempt to tie it. Taylor did tie it, sinking a three as time expired to force overtime in the championship game for the first time since 2010. 

Saint Louis’ huddle in between the end of regulation and overtime was all positive.

“Everybody’s talking, anybody who said anything, never said anything that was negative or gave the impression that they didn’t believe that we could still pull this game out,” Flowers said. “So when you’re in that environment, and everybody around you is saying, ‘that’s okay, we’re going to come out of here and we’re gonna win this game.’ You can’t help but believe that and want to walk in that and elevate to the level that your teammates are expecting from you. So I think we just all had that belief and that confidence and we’ve maintained that the whole season. I think that’s why we’re here right now.

UMass led 79-77 midway through overtime, but a 12-0 run for Saint Louis over the next 110 seconds, gave the Billikens an 89-79 lead with 12 seconds to play. Two threes for the Minutewomen and two Julia Martinez free throws would close out the game. 

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As the final buzzer sounded the Saint Louis bench rushed the court. Martinez leapt into the air where she was caught by her teammates on the A-10 Tournament logo. The Saint Louis celebration was just out of reach of the first fire of the confetti cannon. The trajectory was changed and confetti began to rain down on their celebration. 

Tillett had a straight face as she walked over to the ESPN broadcast where she put on a headset and a smile while holding her championship hat and shirt. 

As the celebration continued, Flowers shouted a joyful expletive in disbelief before hugging McMakin and continuing her celebration. 

Three Saint Louis players were named to the All-Championship team, McMakin, Martinez and Flowers. The trio was joined by UMass’ Ber’Nyah Mayo and Richmond’s Addie Budnik. 

Martinez was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, capping her impressive run with the first triple-double in tournament history with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. She also added four steals and one block as well as just one turnover. In the championship game, Flowers had 13 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block while McMakin led all scorers with 27 points and added four rebounds. 

Confetti falls on Saint Louis as they hoist the trophy and hold up their NCAA Tournament ticket and A-10 champions sign.
Saint Louis celebrates their first NCAA Tournament berth after a 91-85 overtime win over UMass on March 5. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

Saint Louis then gathered for the championship trophy presentation and a second storm of confetti rained down and they lifted their newly punched ticket. 

Tillett eventually switched out of her sparkly heels for a pair of white sneakers to cut down the net, 364 days after she cut down the net at the Big South Championship as the head coach at Longwood. She is the second head coach in Division I women’s basketball history to win two different conference tournaments as the coach of two different schools in consecutive years. She joins Lisa Bluder who did it at Drake and Iowa in 2000 and 2001. 

Saint Louis head coach Rebecca Tillett holds up the net she cut down after the team beat UMass 91-85 in overtime on March 5. In her first season at the helm, she led the team to its first NCAA Tournament birth and first conference championship. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

After celebrating with the net at the top of the ladder, she, Flowers, McMakin and Martinez made their way up to the press conference with the players bringing their All-Championship or Most Outstanding Player trophies with them. Martinez, who had her piece of the net tied around her Most Outstanding Player trophy, apologized for being late — “we were celebrating.” 

Despite how Saint Louis started the season, the team never stopped believing and finding joy in the process.  

“We brought the word joy with us and the team just grabbed it,” Tillett said. “I think when your culture is really starting to seep into the fabric of the group is when they’re holding us accountable to that. ‘Hey, let’s look for the joy in this today.’ Or ‘we need to be tough’ because toughness is one of our core values. So just hearing that spread around the program. … What a group and they made it possible.”

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Flowers talked about how the team pooled their knowledge, she knew the A-10 while McMakin,  Tillett and others from Longwood knew how to win a championship. 

Though others may have labeled this a rebuilding year for the Billikens, they never did. 

“There was a point where we were the only ones who were really believing in ourselves, I think that that makes you such a dangerous team because hope is so dangerous,” McMakin said. “We never shied away from the word of championship, and I think that’s such an important thing that Tillett does. She’s never shy about saying we’re working for a championship. A lot of teams, a lot of coaches are gonna try to stay away from that. We embraced it.” 

In April, Tillett told The Next she was looking forward to testing herself again and seeing if she could lead another group of women to the NCAA Tournament. After getting Longwood to the NCAA Tournament in her fourth season at the helm, she wanted to try to beat herself and get there in three at Saint Louis. 

“And hey, why not sooner?” she said. “It all depends on how all of us that come together put our heads down and work together. And that’s really what will determine how quickly we’re successful.” 

After the team’s semifinal win against Rhode Island on March 4, the Saint Louis locker room played “Started from the Bottom.” 

“It’s like the perfect song,” McMakin said. Martinez later added, “No one would have thought this in the beginning of the year by looking at the record, everyone always asks, ‘well, what’s your record?’ But the numbers don’t always define what a team is actually made of.”

Each Saint Louis warmup shirt had a white rectangle of fabric sewn on the inside of it with 212° printed on it. Tillett’s father coached high school soccer and she borrowed from him the concept of 212°, the temperature that water boils at. 

Saint Louis head coach Rebecca Tillett points to the 212° sewn inside the shirts of the team's warmup shirts
Saint Louis head coach Rebecca Tillett points to the 212° sewn inside the shirts of the team’s warmup shirts on March 4. Photo Credit Domenic Allegra.

“When you’re working with a team, you’re striving to hit that mark of what is that temperature that we can play at our absolute best for a long period of time,” she explained. 

Throughout the season 212 kept appearing, such as the clock stopping at practice at 2:12. After talking to associate head coach Tiffany Sardin before the championship game, Tillett went back to her computer one last time before the game started.

“I’m constantly looking at one more clip, one more clip, there might be something in there and it’s 2:12 on the clock in the clip and I run in and tell the team … But 212° and wow, was our team at 212° today,” she said. 

As Flowers left the press conference she took a moment to look at her All-Championship team trophy and smile at it, before leaving to continue the celebration. A few minutes later Tillett followed suit, leaving the stage still clutching the net she’d just cut down. 

Saint Louis will enter the NCAA Tournament having won 11 of its last 12 games for the first time since the 1978-79 season and will find out who and where they will play next on March 12. 

Though she didn’t know when it would happen at the time, in November, Tillett told The Next that everyone on the team is responsible for building a championship culture.

“You hope ultimately, that everyone’s sacrifices — everyone’s joy in the work — leads this program who we represent, to the place that it deserves to go, which is winning an A-10 championship, [competing] in the NCAA tournament on [a] deep run,” she said. “We believe that we’ve got what we need right here in St. Louis to do that.”

And they did.

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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