April 12, 2024 

How Saint Louis won its first WNIT championship 

Rebecca Tillett: ‘We want to do big things together. And we just did’

Shortly before the WNIT championship game on April 6, Saint Louis senior forward Peyton Kennedy and graduate student guard Julia Martinez headed off to Five Below to see if there were any water guns. The pair were inspired by posts they had seen of teams in the NCAA Tournament and WBIT using water guns as part of victory celebrations.

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“We walk in and they’re right in the front row,” Kennedy told the Next. “Like we have to buy them. It’s fate like it’s right there. And I think just me and Julia and everybody else on the team, everybody wanted one. And that just spoke to how much we believed in what we were doing and the process. And we knew we were winning. We knew we came this far, we’ve come so far in our chemistry [and] our play together and we just trusted the process and the celebration honestly is what we’ll remember as well with the game.” 

Head coach Rebecca Tillett noted that the team must have been very confident if they went ahead and purchased the water guns, but is glad she didn’t know ahead of the team’s 69-50 win over Minnesota. “I would have been like, okay, let’s stay focused on the process, one possession at a time, five minutes at a time,” she told The Next. “Meanwhile, they’ve got water guns hidden in their bags.” 

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The Billikens outscored the Golden Gophers 16-9 in the first quarter and remained in control the rest of the game, leading by as many as 28 in the fourth quarter. Though building a lead was important, Tillett also knew how critical it was to prepare for Minnesota’s runs. During timeouts and the quarter breaks, the team talked about how they would respond as the Golden Gophers went on a run, as they did towards the end of the second quarter.

Kennedy Calhoun had this unbelievable pass to Julia Martinez, right before the half,” Tillett said. “And Julia, who doesn’t take a lot of threes, drained a three, and it was just kind of that moment where you can send a message to each other. We are maintaining this lead, we are not letting it slip away.”

Towards the end of the regular season, Tillett and her coaching staff implemented a couple of new defensive strategies that her players embraced immediately. “I think our philosophy as a staff is, we have to try, we have to try something to help this team access its full potential,” she said. “And so at that point, in time, when we made the changes to our defense, we felt like it just wasn’t holding, it wasn’t holding, so there’s got to be another way to do it well, and [it’s] so fortunate that that was the case.”

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Saint Louis allowed more than 65 points just once during its WNIT run and just 50 points against Minnesota, a season-low against Division I opponents for the Billikens. Tillett said that when her team’s defense was close to its best performance, Kennedy was communicating and calling out what the opponents were doing. Kennedy said that the team’s defensive mindset throughout the season was “dictate and disrupt” and they found new things to say and drills to do to get excited about and continue to elevate the defense, which helped the team in the championship game.

Kennedy was named the 2024 Postseason WNIT MVP after averaging 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. She also set the Saint Louis single-season scoring record and finished the season with 677 points.

“She was just so confident and so patient within our system to find her shots when they came,” Tillett said. “And just for all of us to watch, I mean, we see that in practice so we know that she can do that, but to see her do it so consistently and in such a dominant fashion when the games mean the most.”

Though she’s still getting used to her new MVP title, Kennedy’s grateful for her teammates. “Just being mindful, during the tournament, like this could be our last practice, this could be our last game and just not wanting it to end,” she said.” The seniors that are leaving I’ll only have so many games with them left. And they’re such amazing women, and I wanted to do my best to try and get them their last win in their last [season], to reach the mountaintop and [they] can say — they can leave their college career on a win is something that not everyone can say. So I think doing it for my teammates and just knowing they have my back no matter what, it was a super exciting journey.”

Entering the last week of the regular season, Saint Louis was 11-17, coming off of a 15-point loss to Fordham. The team rattled off three straight wins to end the regular season and two wins in the A-10 Tournament before losing to Rhode Island in the semifinals on March 9. After that loss, the team didn’t know if its season would continue. The Billikens had a record of 16-18 with nonconference wins over Missouri and Missouri State, a win against VCU in the conference tournament, a regular season win against Rhode Island and a seventh-place finish in the A-10. The team would need to wait eight days to find out if they’d play another game. 

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After a couple of days off, coinciding with the school’s spring break, the team returned and practiced twice, not knowing if it would be the last of the season. “We just said together, I think as a group, our leaders like let’s make the best of these two practices, and if we get in then great, it will have been great preparation, and if we don’t get in then these will be kind of our final moments with our graduating seniors,” Tillett said. “And so I think there definitely was emotion tied to that because we weren’t sure if we’d get in. And then when we found out late [on March 17] that we got into the WNIT, we were all in the group message putting memes.  And I was yelling in my house like ‘Let’s go.’”

Kennedy added that Tillett would say the group still had a lot to learn and she was right. “We learned so much about ourselves and as a team throughout this entire postseason run,” she said “With even losing in the [A-10 Tournament] semifinal to now winning the [WNIT] championship, like, we’ve learned so much in the past month. … [W]hen you lose in the conference tournament, you can lose your confidence. But I think we all had [the] belief that we were destined for something greater.”

Once the team found out its season would be continuing, it was determined. “If we’re gonna go in this thing. Let’s go do some damage,” Tillett said. Saint Louis won six games, against Central Arkansas, Northern Iowa, Purdue Fort Wayne, Wisconsin, Vermont and Minnesota to win the WNIT championship. Before its 19-point win over the Golden Gophers, the Billikens won its first five WNIT games by a combined 21 points. Its six wins in the WNIT was Saint Louis’ longest win streak of the season. 

Three graduate students, Camreé Clegg, Martinez, and McMakin have exhausted their eligibility. Tillett noted that all three made a decision, with Clegg and McMakin deciding to transfer to Saint Louis from St. John’s and Longwood respectively, and Martinez deciding to stay in 2022 after Tillett was hired.

“They wanted to do more for this place. And I mean, arguably, they’ll walk out is some of the most decorated Billikens in their team accomplishments with the A-10 championship in 2023 and the WNIT championship in 2024,” Tillett said. “And more importantly, they’ve left a lasting impact on their teammates. And they often say tradition never graduates, well, if you leave a really positive tradition with your team, then that will live on because those players are going to pass that down to the next generation of players. And I think all three of them have done that.”

After the WNIT championship win, Martinez joined the Billikens radio broadcaster Colin Suhre for a postgame interview. The pair talked about Saint Louis’s journey from losing in the A-10 Tournament to the WNIT run, as well as her career as a whole. “To end my career on a win, not many people can really say that in front of such an amazing environment here of SLU fans it’s honestly — I don’t have much to say it’s breathtaking,” she said.

Martinez played 27 minutes in the WNIT championship game and finished with three points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five steals. Her name is littered around the Saint Louis record book, including the top two single-season steals records in program history in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons.  

Saint Louis players make a w with their hands to signify the team's win.
Saint Louis players pose after their 2024 WNIT championship win over Minnesota at First Community Arena at the Vadalabene Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, on April 6, 2024. (Photo credit: Saint Louis Athletics)

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“I’m just proud. I’m proud of my career, proud of this year that I’ve had,” she said. “The amazing people that I’ve met my teammates, my coaches, so many mentors I’ve met along the way it’s just — it honestly comes to happiness at the end of the day.”

Tillett hopes that the WNIT championship will benefit the team’s recruiting and has already seen some recruits be more engaged after seeing the team play on CBS Sports Network. It also sets another bar for the program that can be raised and Tillett said it’s up to the next group of competitive women to continue to raise the bar and break another record.

The red seats of First Community Arena at the Vadalabene Center on the campus of SIUE were littered with blue for the WNIT championship game, about 25 miles from Saint Louis’ Chaifetz Arena. The Billikens were fourth in the A-10 this season in home attendance, averaging 1,386 fans per game

Tillett knows fans can influence a game and wants to continue to build relationships with the community and encourage them to come to games. “Especially the kids, when you see young girls, young boys coming up to our women like those are the people they look up to, that’s a really, really special part of this town,” she said.

Kennedy also talked about how inspired the team gets when young girls tell them they want to be them when they get older. “We were those little girls at one point, and this was our dream, and now we’re living in it,” she said. “And it’s so special to be able to share that with friends and family close to where we play at home.”

The game couldn’t be played at Chaifetz Arena because the Zac Brown Band was playing at a concert there that night. After the team claimed the trophy and cut the net down, it made it back to Saint Louis in time to be recognized by the band. 

“The crowd really gave our women something to feel good about,” Tillett said. “And they put the spotlight on them. And I just think we’re at a point in women’s sports where everybody’s talking about it and right now, specifically, women’s basketball. And so to see our women have that recognition in front of the community and have the community support. Also, the community was a big part of our story this year in terms of our home attendance and some of the impressive wins we were able to get here at home. And then for them to stick with us through the entire process and end up in the championship game.”

Kennedy added, “Being able to be recognized in the St. Louis community is just a beautiful thing. And that was such a huge opportunity for us also to get our names out there and just be recognized for our accomplishments and realize how big of an accomplishment this is. And it was so awesome. Everybody kept telling us ‘congratulations,’ as we were going up the concourse. And just those moments again, are what we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives, and just realizing it’s bigger than basketball. And just getting — being able to have these opportunities to expand in the St. Louis community and hopefully, have more fans next year.”

Tillett believes this season will be one of the most rewarding stories of her career because it didn’t start or go how the team expected it to. “Maybe that was the lesson we were supposed to learn together,” she said. “You’re coming off the [A-10] championship last year. And I remember our first workout in June and we had players on our team that really expected perfection in the first workout. And we were kind of having to talk to them as a team of like guys, it’s a process again we have to — it’s a new process towards the journey. And so I think maybe that’s what this season was supposed to teach us, … we had some individual and collective adversity on the staff and with health, and so for all of us to kind of wade through those challenges together and support one another, through all of it and have it culminate in a championship, it’s just the most special thing.”

Tillett summarized what the team accomplished with one simple statement to emphatically end her CBS Sports Network postgame interview, “We got a couple of seniors graduating, we got people coming back that want to do big things. We want to do big things together. And we just 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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