By Patrick Engel
Four games into her college career, Ellie Rice approached her coach with an extraordinary request.
She asked to be removed from Loyola’s starting lineup and come off the bench instead.
No, she wasn’t losing her mental faculties. The freshman had, after all, turned down Dartmouth in favor of Loyola, becoming the second player from Texas in program history. Yes, a 1,600-point high school scorer and McDonald’s All-American nominee who dropped 20 points in her first college game really did volunteer to surrender a starting spot.
Following a November loss at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Rice approached Loyola coach Kate Achter about the move. In her last two starts, she had scored five points and shot 2-for-11 from the floor. A self-described visual learner, she wanted to see the game unfold from the sideline at first before she took the court. Achter needed no cajoling.
“We thought it would help with her reading and reacting,” Achter said. “If she could see how the defense was playing us before she got out there, it was kind of like seeing the answers to a test before you take it.”
So Rice moved to the bench, and sophomore Lauren Segars replaced her as a starting guard. Rice’s importance to Loyola, though, has hardly changed.
After averaging 4.3 points through her first six conference games, Rice has scored at least 10 in three of her last four, adding 19 rebounds and five assists in that span. As her scoring total has risen, so has her team’s output. The Ramblers produced 65 points in a loss Friday – their fourth-highest total this year – then followed it with a season-best 82 on Sunday.
“She’s just had a little bit more confidence and she doesn’t second-guess herself off the catch,” Achter said. “But we’ve really fought with her to get her to realize when she’s open, rather than thinking, ‘I’m just a freshman and I’m in this position, so I should pass it.’”
Though Rice comes off the bench, her 25.3 minutes per game this season ranks third on the team. That number has risen to 28 minutes in her last four games. She’s Loyola’s first substitute, and lately, she has been a spark.
Friday, she grabbed a rebound and scored on her first two possessions. In the third quarter, with Loyola trailing Indiana State 41-21, Achter put her in, looking for something or someone to prevent the game from imploding. Rice made back-to-back layups, and then a 3-pointer. Her mid-range jumper in the fourth quarter cut Indiana State’s lead to single digits.
In 30 minutes vs. Indiana State, she finished with a plus-minus of nine. No other Loyola player was positive.
“It takes me a little while to get in, get warmed up and get my groove going,” Rice said. “But once I do, when I get my first rebound, first stop or first score, then I feel comfortable playing the rest of the game.”
Sunday’s win over Evansville offered the best evidence of improvement. Rice shot 3-for-6 on 3-pointers, setting season highs in attempts and makes. After going scoreless in the first quarter, her seven points in the second quarter helped give Loyola a 39-21 lead just before halftime.
“It’s being a lot more confident in my shot and knowing I have the freedom in the offense to shoot it when it’s open and to create when it’s covered,” Rice said.
That’s part of the reason Achter has been willing to play Rice late in games. She played all 10 minutes of the fourth quarter against Indiana State as Loyola tried to complete a comeback. She was in the game for the first 6:38 of the fourth quarter vs. Evansville before Achter took her out, with Loyola leading comfortably.
“She may not start the game,” Achter said. “But she finishes it for us.”