By Patrick Engel
Kate Achter came to her postgame media session armed with precise assurance of what had just happened.
“To me, what it looked like, is that we got complacent,” Loyola’s coach said, incredulous. “We thought it was going to be a 10-point win, and we were just ready to take it in. That speaks to our maturity. We’re not good enough to do that.”
That message was merited. What looked like an easy win for Loyola over a bottom-four team in the Missouri Valley turned into a debacle. Loyola had a 10-point lead in the final minute of the third quarter, then squandered it by giving up 30 points in the fourth.
The Ramblers lost 63-53 Sunday afternoon to Valparaiso, a team in its first season in the MVC after moving up from the Horizon League. Rather than notching their first winning streak in Achter’s two years as head coach, they fell to 5-18 and 3-9 in conference play.
Sitting at a dais in Gentile Arena’s media room, Achter balanced two different emotions. She deliberated the meltdown while also referencing the progress she thinks Loyola has made this year. It was the perfect mix of frustration and hope.
“We did a lot of really good things in the first half,” she said, “and then we just don’t have the maturity or toughness or experience, or whatever it may be, in the second half to finish it out.”
There were certainly impressive stretches. Loyola raced to a 7-0 lead and held Valpo scoreless for the first 6:20 of the game. For a while, it didn’t matter if Valpo was in its 2-3 zone defense or trap-heavy man defense. Loyola scored against both. Even after Valpo tied the score at 16 late in the first half, senior guard Jessica Cerda made three consecutive 3-pointers. Each was assisted and the result of efficient ball movement.
Twice in the third quarter, Loyola owned a 12-point lead. These were the chances to expand on it and snuff out any hope of a Valpo comeback.
Instead, Loyola left the door cracked open. Valpo, in return, blew it off its hinges.
Down 41-31 in the final minute of the third quarter, Valpo started an 11-0 run that spanned 5:14. During it, Loyola was 0-for-6 from the floor with two turnovers and allowed two offensive rebounds. The Crusaders played the same defenses and ran the same offensive sets. They simply saw an opening and made a run. Loyola offered fleeting resistance.
Despite the late run, Valpo still ended the game with a lower shooting percentage from the field and from 3-point range than Loyola.
“I thought we lost the game,” Achter said. “I don’t think it was anything Valpo did. We didn’t value the ball in the second half, and we didn’t adjust to them making shots.”
Valpo’s second-leading scorer, Meredith Hamlet, was 0-for-4 from the field through three quarters. She dropped all 19 of her points in the fourth, given either a free lane to the basket or plenty of space to knock down a 3.
Loyola’s top scorers, though, stayed quiet. Freshmen Abby O’Connor and Kailyn Strawbridge were 0-for-4 with three turnovers in the fourth quarter. Neither made a field goal the entire game. O’Connor’s only points came on a pair of free throws with three minutes left.
“Abby looked really hesitant today,” Achter said. “Maybe Straw got taken a little bit out of rhythm because she got in some foul trouble, because she was doing some good things.”
Asked, as usual, to shoehorn a preview of next week’s games into her postgame confab, Achter said she had yet to watch film of either. Then she returned to the matter at hand. She had no interest in uttering a banality or a few nice words about Loyola’s next opponents. This was all about where Loyola is now and what needs to happen.
“We’re not far off,” Achter said. “It’s just the roller coaster and kids stepping up and making tough plays. We’re not there yet. So we just keep moving.”