Halfway through the season, it is safe to say that the Loyola Marymount Lions are, indeed, for real.
They seemed to come out of nowhere to start the year, roaring to a 7-0 start – their best in 12 seasons. But there was nothing incidental about it. The program is beginning to manifest its potential after a long rebuilding process.
“We feel really good about where we are right now,” sixth-year coach Charity Elliott said.
The tone was set last year, and carried over to this season. It can be seen in the Lion’s quickness, in their ability to play on both sides of the court and in their relentlessness against opponents.
Their fourth game of 2017-2018 saw them face off with the Arizona Wildcats – their first opponent from a major conference. Both teams, at that point, were 3-0.
Arizona came out firing, and hopped to a 21-7 lead, but LMU refused to roll over. They outscored the visitors in the second period to narrow their lead to eight at halftime. In the third quarter, they took control, and over the last eight minutes of the game they held the Wildcats scoreless to go on to win.
Their performance was similar to their matchup against highly-touted St. Louis eight days earlier. The Billikens ran out to an early lead, which was matched by a Lions run, and ended in a 62-60 win for visiting LMU, who didn’t back down and made crucial baskets down the stretch.
The Lions didn’t lose a game until Dec. 1, when they narrowly fell to USC. Currently they are a healthy 12-5, which is tops in Elliott’s tenure.
The never-say-die attitude and buoyant attitude of the team culminates the culture-building that Elliott began when she took the helm of the program in 2012. It was hard-fought, but is paying big dividends.
Through a combination of great personnel and cohesive chemistry both on the off the court, LMU is suddenly a contender in West Coast Conference play. But Elliott said the work is ongoing.
“We aren’t anywhere close to reaching our potential,” she said. “We still have some ways to go. Everything really depends on our consistency, and the effort we put in.”
Prior to Elliott’s arrival, the Lions had four seasons of lackluster performances under the previous coach, who ran the program for 17 years. Elliott, who had been head coach at the University of California at San Diego and Portland State, had to rebuild LMU from scratch when she arrived.
It was slow going, as the team had a losing record her first four years. But a game against West Coast Conference rival BYU in January, 2017, proved to be a turning point for the program.
The Lions opened the matchup cold, connecting on just 1-10 from the floor before heating up to end the first quarter, shooting 7-8 in the final three minutes to take a three-point lead. The teams took turns going on runs in the second and third quarters, with LMU at a 45-41 advantage to begin the last period.
The fourth frame proved to be as epic as those before it, but a shot miss by the Lions at the buzzer sent the game into overtime. The back-and-forth that ensued came down to free throws at the end, but on the last possession it was defense by LMU that shut down the league-leading Cougars. They went on to win four of their last eight games with an enthusiasm that is ongoing.
Elliott said the new attitude is because players started believing in themselves.
“Last season was our first year of having a winning mindset,” she said. “We learned how to close out games and how to compete with people we normally didn’t compete with.”
Elliott is excited about this year’s squad, and their potential.
“This team, they have so much heart, and the way that we’re just giving up ourselves and just really making it all about the team,” she said. “We know how hard we have to play, I think that’s what we’ve learned over (the) past few games. The energy, the intensity, we’ve got to get out there. I told them, ‘get out of yourself and get into the team.’ That’s the most important thing right now, because it’s everybody on a different night stepping up.”
Elliott believes her team’s defense will be a deciding factor over the next three months.
“We want to be the team that forces the issue early,” she said. “We want to dictate the other team’s offensive pace.”
The new-look Lions are a mixture of new faces and returners that include a star-studded freshman class, along with stellar transfers.
This year Elliott welcomed a top 50 recruiting class that featured Southern California natives Chelsey Gipson, Jasmine Jones and Aiyana Barnes. Returners rave about the newcomers.
“Sometimes I forget that they’re freshmen,” said junior forward Chyanne Wallace, who is averaging 17.1 points per game this season. “They’re so talented, and they blended in very well.”
Redshirt juniors Josie Buckingham and Gabby Green sat out 2016-17 after transferring from Minnesota and Cal, respectively.
Buckingham, at 6-5, is the tallest player to don an LMU uniform since the 1998-1999 season. Green earned multiple honors as a Bear, including making the all-Pac-12 freshman team and honorable mention defensive team. Green has played a big part in the Lion starting lineup this year, and is averaging 15.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Other key returners are juniors Andee Velasco, a guard, and Bree Alford, who plays forward. Both are averaging more than eight points per game, and Alford is pulling down a team-high 9.3 rebounds.
The group was able to get into a groove in their first few practices, finding a good mesh within different lineups.
“We do a lot of breakdown drills.” Elliot said. “It’s about finding the right group and team that plays well together. A person might not be a good player one on one, but could be great five on five.”
Elliott is pleased with the flexibility and versatility of her athletes.
“I love this team’s togetherness and mindset,” she said. “We have a lot of different weapons out on the floor, and it’s just exciting to see our girls step out and thrive in different situations.”
The Lions are successful on the court because they get along well off of it, and that includes the coaching staff. Associate head coach April Phillips said coaches worked to build relationships with each player.
“We have a lot of new pieces,” she said. “Each coach has to be all in, which requires a lot of time off the court with the girls.”
The upside to Green having to sit out a year is that it fostered greater bonds and connections between teammates. Elliott said the on-court chemistry between Green and Wallace is “insane in practice.”
“We have a lot of love playing together,” Wallace said. “I have so much respect for [Green]. Her leadership has been huge for our team.”
Phillips said the entire team is close.
“I think the biggest impact on our success has been the girls’ love for each other,” Phillips said, “This has to be one of the more fun and happy teams we’ve had. Gabby worked really hard to strengthen her relationship with the team, you know as the new kid on the block, and it’s been a dream come true.”
Players said being around each other is their choice.
“We’re together a lot,” said Green. “We all have a good connection. We have game nights, basketball games, we’re almost together too much.”
As the Lions face another WCC opponent tonight, Elliott is optimistic that the off-court chemistry of her team will continue to translate on the hardwood.
“Having high-level players is a huge piece for winning,” Elliot said. “Every person on our team and staff has a huge impact in our success, both on and off the court.”