December 5, 2022 

‘Staying the course and staying together’: How transfers, new coach are helping Saint Louis build

Saint Louis is finding joy in the process during Rebecca Tillett’s first season

Seven returners to Saint Louis. Four transfers from Longwood. Two transfers from other schools. Three freshman. Seven new members of the coaching staff, six with a connection to Longwood.

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With so many new faces in the Saint Louis program — and the added layer of four players being familiar with most of the coaching staff — head coach Rebecca Tillett has had to be intentional with how she is building the program in her first season at the helm.

With players new to Saint Louis, new to the coaching staff and new to both, the team has had to focus on developing chemistry.

“I think, in so many ways, it was this great chemistry experiment and mixture of different people,” Tillett told The Next.

Ensuring a smooth transition for every player has required daily attention from the coaching staff. Led by a leadership council, the team has also engaged in a variety of methods to help create chemistry, like individual meetings, “deep-level sharing, person-by-person” and “Toughness with the Marine Corps.”

“I think all of those things, no one item on that list is going to help you build cohesive chemistry,” Tillett said. “It’s all of those things that we’re pouring in to. And it’s all an investment. An investment in time and investment in each other that you really hope leads to long-term, the foundation of the type of program we’re trying to build.”

Every Friday in September, the team trained with Marines beginning at 6 a.m. in a variety of activities and settings including a combat fitness test, boxing and a session in the pool. The lessons focused on topics including communication, toughness and trust.

The team was tested by carrying their teammates on their shoulders, doing arm pumps with ammo cans and more.

“It’s really taxing on your body, and it’s also something really mental that you have to fight through within yourself and with your teammates. And it helps you — like if I could do this, then I can do anything type of feeling,” senior Kyla McMakin told The Next.

She believes this unique experience helped the team bond, noting getting yelled at while crawling on the ground made the team feel closer than ever. It also taught her to think more about how she can help her teammates as well as about discipline as a team. 

One thing the Billikens have continued to do into the season is having each player creating a three-slide PowerPoint of who they are, their personal values and who the important people to them are. Sophomore Kennedy Calhoun believes this allows the team to bond and get to know each other better, something she knows will help them on the court as well.

“I just think relationships are a really big part of basketball,” Calhoun told The Next. “And I think that we all understand that, and therefore we’re all taking steps forward to make sure that our [relationship] pieces on and off the court are where they need to be with one another.”

The warm welcome from her teammates and coaches has been the easiest part of graduate transfer Camree Clegg’s transition from St. John’s to Saint Louis. According to Clegg, the most difficult part has been building chemistry on and off the court, though the team is working to make it as easy as possible. 

Over the summer, the players made an effort to get breakfast with each other on the weekends, something Calhoun believes helped the Billikens grow closer. It’s those little things that many around the Saint Louis program believe can make a difference on the court, too.

“Just learning the little things about each other, could really help us be able to push through, where we’re at those tough games, where it’s only one possession, and we need something big to happen,” McMakin said. “Learning each other’s [tendencies], what we like to do and all that can really help us with winning those games.”

In an effort to continue building team chemistry, each player was able to voice what they’re used to so they can incorporate aspects of familiarity for everyone. 

“Even our warmups before games, we talked to everyone, wherever they went, what did they like to do and try to have everything incorporated into something new to where it’s familiar, yet, more with this team,” McMakin said.

Tillett believes the efforts the team made over the summer have left the team grounded. Despite their 3-8 record through Dec. 3, which includes losing three games by four points or less, the energy of the team is still positive.

“The mindset is still, ‘Let’s learn and get better every single day and really focus on what can we learn in this nonconference difficult schedule slate to be really prepared for the A-10 [conference schedule],’” the head coach said.

McMakin also believes that a difficult nonconference schedule will prime the team for Atlantic 10 opponents, comparing the feeling to taking practice swings with a baseball bat that has a weight attached. She is confident the Billikens will be ready to go up against teams that can drive, shoot threes, have dominant post players and be able to execute plays at the end of one-possession games, having already been in those situations.

Camree Clegg (white and blue uniform) dribbles around her defender (red and black uniform) against SIUE
Camree Clegg dribbles around her defender against SIUE on Nov. 11. Photo Courtesy of Saint Louis Athletics.

A month into the season, Calhoun, Clegg and McMakin have all shown that they are critical pieces to this team. 

Tillett isn’t surprised that Calhoun’s defense has translated from her freshman season at Longwood, but is pleasantly surprised that her assist numbers have remained high. Calhoun enjoys finding her teammates and is working to continue to improve, while also working on reducing her turnovers. 

“I love to put a smile on my teammate’s face so every time I’m able to make a great pass to them and they knock down a shot, or even vice versa when they pass me a great pass, do I knock down the shot for them?” Calhoun said. “Just doing that on the both ways goes a long way.”

Calhoun — who has averaged 4.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game in Saint Louis’ first 11 games — noted that finding good shots for everyone and knocking down shots when you receive a good pass is something the team as a whole is working on as well. 

Clegg has adjusted quickly to her new school and coaching staff and averaged 8.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in the team’s first 11 games. She believes she’s able to share her experience and learn from others to help the team grow as fast as it can. 

Tillett expected McMakin’s scoring to translate, and it has. She has averaged 19.0 points per game so far this season, as well as 3.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game.

McMakin believes that knowing the coaching staff and their system has allowed her to adjust quickly at Saint Louis. She didn’t feel like a new player, but rather someone who was able to teach instead of being taught. Though she leads the team in scoring, she is working to be more efficient when she scores, as well as improve on the defensive end. 

Early in the season, McMakin has been a leader and is using her voice and helping the team to stay positive.

“It’s been difficult, obviously, with the way the games have been going lately, especially the one-possession games where it’s really close, you really want those,” she said. “Just staying positive. And knowing you got to buy into the idea that each game we get a little bit better. And that as long as we’re improving, then we’re going to be a successful program.” 

McMakin believes that the team has a mindset centered around toughness and pushing forward to build the foundation for future success.

“There’s also a toughness about it, because we might not be able to enjoy the success that we ended up building, but you’re doing something for the greater good,” she said. “And that’s, to me, a part of toughness.”

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Tillett knows about slow-and-steady progress from her four years at Longwood, where the Lancers went from three wins in her first season in 2018-19 to 12 in 2019-20, 14 in the covid-shortened 2020-21 and 22 — plus a Big South championship — last season.

After earning the school’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament last year, she reached out to the seniors from the first team who helped lay the foundation that led to the eventual championship. She hopes to make similar phone calls to the seniors of this season’s team, no matter the record they finish with this season.

One key element that the head coach has identified: even when facing a few tough losses so far, there hasn’t been a sense of negativity in the locker room.

“None of us would do this if we wanted to lose the game and nobody wants to lose by one possession,” Tillett said. “I think so far, our team has proven that they’re very open to new learning. They’re very open to just staying the course and staying together.”

The team is communicating positively and having conversations individually and in group settings about what the team is doing better at and what still needs to be improved, something Tillett believes is “critically important” to how the team moves forward. 

“I don’t think I could be more pleased as a coach with where those conversations are headed,” Tillett said. “And maybe pleasantly surprised – like, based on our record, you would not think those are the conversations that are going on. I think right now our team is staying really focused on that.”

She also acknowledged that the coaches need to ensure the team continues to listen and do what the coaches ask of them, which is only made easier by winning along the way.

“We’re going to stay focused on doing every single thing we can, but you can’t wish a win to happen and you got to keep putting in the work over and over and over until it happens,” Tillett said. “And then you have to turn around and do it all again.” 

Tillett believes that the team is starting to build the rhythm while still working on rotations, how members of the team fit together best and what is needed in specific games. 

Additionally, Clegg knows that they’re still learning to play with each other after practicing against each other in the preseason, seeing things from opposing teams that they didn’t within themselves. 

In the short term, Tillett would like to see everyone being accountable after losses and see individual workouts, shooting and film sessions become part of the culture of the program. In game action, she wants the Billikens to focus on their ability to get stops and outrebound their opponents.

Rebounding and defense is something Tillett has seen improve, especially between the team’s matchups against Green Bay (a 73-70 loss on Nov. 18) and South Dakota (a 71-67 loss on Nov. 20). Though there was less than 48 hours between the games and the Billikens didn’t win either game, Tillett noted that, for much of the game, they didn’t allow South Dakota to do what it wanted, which was a step forward for the team defensively. 

“The last element is when the pressure is on, and the game is tight, and you’re a new group together, it’s learning those tendencies of what your teammate might do in that situation, or how they respond to pressure or stress,” Tillett said. “Some of those things you can only learn by going through them together. And then you learn them, and sometimes you learn in the hardest possible way losing a game by one possession. And then you hope you never learn that exact same lesson again, and your team responds in that way.”

While she knows those goals will ultimately lead to the outcomes she and the rest of the team want, she also knows they can’t be focused on outcomes right now. 

“Even when you win, the process is the same. Whether you win or whether you lose, you’ve got to go back to work to get the next one,” Tillett said

Overall, the players and coaching staff are committed to the process of building success at Saint Louis and both Clegg and Calhoun knows the team sees the small steps and each progression the team makes, even in losses. The team is working to celebrate every progression and step forward because they know they eventually will add up to wins.

Kennedy Calhoun (white jersey with blue details) brings the ball up the court against South Dakota
Kennedy Calhoun brings the ball up the court against South Dakota on Nov. 20. Photo Courtesy of Saint Louis Athletics.

With a mixture of those new to Saint Louis, new to the coaching staff and new to both, Tillett knows that there is a lot of individual knowledge on the team, but there is also a lot that is not collectively known. After each practice, she knows there are fewer things that the team doesn’t know together.

Though McMakin, Calhoun and the other two Longwood transfers were familiar with most of the coaching staff, they’ve still had to adjust to a new environment, new team and new school. 

While Calhoun said it has been a fun process to work to combine the returners and the newcomers, she acknowledged that it has been challenging along the way. 

“I think you have to love the challenge and love that process. And I think that’s something that we all do,” she said. 

Despite being a sophomore, Calhoun has emerged as a leader this season. Her familiarity with Tillett’s system has allowed her to help her teammates who are in their first season under the new coaching staff.

She has learned to be a leader from McMakin, Clegg, Julia Martinez and Brooke Flowers. Calhoun is able to take leadership examples from her teammates and apply them herself, and she enjoys being able to feed off of each other. 

Tillett believes that having players that know the culture and expectations of the coaching staff can help build the culture because it is something that players and staff build together. And to McMakin, it doesn’t matter who the team is playing, they just want to play the best version of Saint Louis basketball they can. 

“As teammates, we want to make sure that we’re giving our team, all that we can and we have a saying like ‘what are you willing to do for a teammate,’” she said. “And I think you have to be willing to go through difficult games like we’ve been going through in order to improve as a team and that’s something you sacrifice.” 

Clegg added, “We know how good we can be. And we’ve seen flashes of it. And I think we’re [trying to] work towards being as consistently that team as possible.”

Kyla McMakin (blue uniform) puts up a shot over the raised hand of a defender
Kyla McMakin takes a shot against Indiana State on Nov. 7. Photo Courtesy of Saint Louis Athletics

For the four transfers who followed Tillett from Longwood, their decision to leave means they missed out on the ring ceremony and banner hanging from their historic season last year. 

“They were so immersed in the process of doing all the firsts at Longwood and they took this huge leap of faith to move halfway across the country to Saint Louis, and literally put their heads down and work again,” the head coach said of her transfers. “Because all of those guys were recruited to Longwood to change the current storyline for Longwood at the time.”

McMakin decided to transfer because of the belief Tillett had in her and the care she and the rest of the coaching staff have for their players. While Longwood will always be a part of her story, it gave her the opportunity to play at Saint Louis.

“We did what we wanted to accomplish there,” McMakin said. “And I think, now we’re competitive people, and we were ready for the next challenge. And I think this is a pretty big next challenge that we were going for. So just off that, I think everyone was ready. Like, we did this, now we could do it somewhere else.” 

After the team’s Nov. 11 win over SIUE, Tillett told reporters that having players familiar with her system sped up the adjustment process because players like McMakin can have some of the “how and why we do things” conversations as well, not just coaches. 

While Calhoun’s knowledge of the system has helped her, she is still working to find her role this season and how she and her teammates can help each other improve their weaknesses and continue to improve their strengths.

Tillett does not believe the team’s current 3-8 record is a reflection of the development she’s seen from the team so far and she plans to continue to measure in smaller parts and celebrate the moments of chemistry. She also noted the practices are becoming more competitive.

As she mentioned shortly after being hired and again on Nov. 21, Tillett wants to lead Saint Louis to the NCAA tournament in the years to come.

“No one says we can’t try to win the A-10,” Tillett said. “I mean, I think you have to keep your hopes high and stay the course with the work every single day. And all of these things are preparation for those moments.”

But even if it takes time, Tillett has repeatedly said that the goal is to lead Saint Louis to the NCAA tournament in the years to come. And one of the ways the Billikens can help do that is to keep one of their core values front-and-center: joy.

“Everyone here has joy to the point where you’ll come to a practice, and you’ll think, wow, this doesn’t seem like a team who hasn’t gotten over the hump yet,” McMakin said. “Because we’re just so excited to be together, excited to play basketball and just have so much joy playing with each other. I think joy is really something that everyone brings to the team in their own way.”

Prior to the team’s game against SIUE, McMakin felt the pressure of being a leader on the team and put too much on herself. Flowers, other teammates and her coaches reminded her that basketball is supposed to be fun and is meant to be played with joy. McMakin led the team with 31 points that game.

McMakin’s favorite memory of the season so far is the joy of the game against SIUE when 13 players were able to play and score, including some scoring their first career points. 

“That is just something that people will remember forever,” she said. “And everyone on the bench were very happy and the excitement in the gym was great, and it’s something I think we all want to reach again.”

Calhoun mentioned that her favorite memory from the season so far stems from one of the team’s post-game traditions. Before Tillett and the rest of the coaching staff enter the locker room, the team plays music and dances.

After the SIUE game, everyone was having fun and dancing to Cardi B. She hopes there are more team memories like that as Saint Louis’ season continues, and her head coach has the belief that this group of Billikens have the right mentality to “stay the course of getting better” and create 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.”

Jenn Hatfield contributed to this report.

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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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