#RingTheBell – The Story of the 2019-20 Women’s Basketball Season
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
#RingTheBell – The Story of the 2019-20 Women’s Basketball Season

Quite simply, the 2019-20 season was a huge step forward for the Valpo women’s basketball program. You could see it anecdotally just watching the team play, as second-year head coach Mary Evans and her staff refused to let their players settle for anything less than their best, showing their total commitment to help the team reach its full potential.

You could see it analytically as well. The Brown and Gold enjoyed the largest jump in RPI ranking of any Division I team in the nation, set multiple school records and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Missouri Valley Conference.

But it all boils down to wins, punctuated by post-game celebrations ringing the Victory Bell. And Valpo had those in spades, ending the truncated season with 17 victories – the program’s winningest campaign since 2006-07.

The wins came in non-conference play, where Valpo posted an 8-3 record – the best pre-conference mark in program history. The wins came away from home, as Valpo went 9-5 in true road games – the most road wins since the 2001-02 team won nine true road games. And the wins came when the schedule shifted to Missouri Valley Conference action, as Valpo finished 9-9 in MVC play – its first .500 or better record in league play since 2008-09 – in a conference that finished the season ranked eighth nationally in RPI.

Along the way, there were some memorable victories, seven of which are highlighted with thoughts from Coach Evans from immediately following the game and thoughts from senior Grace Hales, junior Addison Stoller and sophomore Shay Frederick looking back at the season.

Bowling Green – Nov. 24, 2019 – ARC – W 95-90 (ot)

The home opener would not be an easy one for Valpo, as the Brown and Gold had to face a Bowling Green team that had earned victories in the series each of the last two years and entered the ARC with a perfect 3-0 record.

BGSU led for the vast majority of the game and enjoyed as much as a 13-point advantage in the first half. Valpo sliced the Falcons’ lead down to three points with 1:54 to play in the third quarter, but Bowling Green went on a 12-3 run spanning the end of the third and the start of the fourth to make it a 69-57 game with 8:32 remaining.

As would become apparent over the course of the season, however, a double-figure deficit wasn’t a death knell for this Valpo team. A quick nine-point spurt got Valpo back within three points. The Falcons pushed their lead back to eight points at 74-66 with under 3:30 to play, but Valpo scored six points in its next two possessions to again pull within one possession.

The battle to get over the hump continued though, as Bowling Green scored on three straight trips inside of two minutes to play. But each time, Valpo answered with baskets, and the last was the biggest of them all, as Grace White grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it in while being fouled for a 3-point play with 20 seconds to play to tie the game at 80. The Falcons missed on their final trip, and while the deficit had been overcome, the battle wasn’t yet complete as overtime loomed.

While the biggest shot of regulation was the final basket, the biggest shot in overtime was perhaps the first bucket for either team, as Ella Ellenson hit a 3-pointer 1:21 into the extra period to give Valpo its first lead since midway through the first quarter. White followed with a basket on the next possession, and Bowling Green did not have the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead the rest of the game as Valpo closed out the wild victory in its home opener.

Frederick and Hales tied for team-high honors in the win with 21 points apiece, both matching their career high in the process. But fittingly for a team that boasted many players who would step up at various points through the season, the key baskets came from White and Ellenson, both of whom had not hit a field goal in the game prior to their respective baskets.

Evans“I'm just really proud of the overall team effort. Every single player was key to us winning - 11 people played and all 11 brought something to the table. We could have very easily given in and given up when we got down, but our players continued to fight. I challenged them a bit at halftime, and they came out and fought and fought and fought, and they put themselves in a position to win the game.”

Hales“This game was so exciting. It was such a hard-fought win. I think it impressed many people because we did not shoot well. I had a 21-point game without making a single 3-pointer, something that nobody thought could happen. Despite our poor shooting, Coach Evans told us the next day that it proved how much better we had gotten as a team, because no other year would we have been tough enough to pull out an OT win against a team like that, all while having to drive to the basket.”

Stoller“This game was a total team effort. The intensity was high and it was truly a heart-racing type of game that sparked the beginning of our winning streak.”

Frederick“This was a game where we struggled to shoot in the beginning, but toward the end, we hit shots down the stretch to get back in it. Grace White had a huge and-1 to go into overtime and we came out with the comeback win. This game was really important for us early on in the season. It showed our fight, that we can win games and that this season wasn’t going to be like last season.”

Toledo – Nov. 27, 2019 – Toledo, Ohio – W 61-54

Having dispatched one MAC program three days earlier, the task got tougher as Valpo hit the road right before Thanksgiving. The Brown and Gold were heading to Savage Arena – the rafters containing the long and storied history of the Toledo women’s program, including a second-round WNIT appearance the previous year, and the seats containing crowds which perennially rank among the top attendances nationally.

None of that mattered on the court to Valpo, however. A back-and-forth first half saw Toledo carry a one-point lead into halftime. The Rockets scored two baskets in the first 49 seconds of the third quarter before the Valpo defense showcased how far it had come since last season – a theme that would carry throughout the year. Toledo scored just two points over the final nine minutes of the period as Valpo flipped a four-point deficit into a nine-point lead with one quarter remaining.

Meanwhile, while the Valpo defense took care of business on one end, Carie Weinman enjoyed a breakout game on the offensive end of the court. Playing in just her sixth game after sitting out the previous season, Weinman was on fire throughout the win, going 6-of-8 from behind the 3-point line and scoring a game-high 20 points – 11 of which came in the aforementioned third quarter.

Despite all that, the result was still in doubt heading into the final minutes, as Toledo crept to within two points with three minutes to play. However, on a team on which anyone could step up at any moment, Valpo got a pair of clutch plays from Marlee Profitt. Seeing regular playing time for just the third game as she continued to battle back from another ACL tear, Profitt found herself on the court down the stretch and came up with baskets on back-to-back possessions to keep Toledo at bay and help Valpo clinch its second consecutive win.

Evans – “I'm really excited for our group – this was a big win for us, as we continue to learn how to win and learn how to do it together. Anytime you go on the road into a hostile environment, you have to come together and be tighter as a unit to come out with a win, and this group did a great job to do that. I'm really proud of our defensive effort in that second half - everybody executed their assignments well, and it was a big step for this team. This game was a collective effort – Carie led us in scoring, had a great night and hit a lot of shots, and her teammates really did a good job moving the ball and finding her in open positions to shoot.”

Hales“Carie was shooting amazing! We needed that. We were all so pumped after the game that we had beaten two good MAC teams in back-to-back games.”

Frederick“One thing I remember specifically from this game is, when in doubt give Carie the ball. She was absolutely on fire. It was so fun to watch her hit all of those 3s. This was another huge team win for us early in the season. We were beating teams we had lost to last year and it was huge for us. I just remember us in the locker room being like, ‘We can do this. This is the expectation. We’re a good team and we have to start believing that.’ The energy was really high in the locker room after the game.”

Eastern Illinois – Dec. 30, 2019 – Charleston, Ill. – W 78-66

Sometimes a game can turn in your favor in seemingly the blink of an eye. That would be the case for Valpo as it rode a six-game winning streak into Eastern Illinois for its final non-conference game of the season and its final game of the 2019 calendar year.

The theme of the first half was buzzer-beaters for the Brown and Gold. The first quarter ended with Valpo holding a nine-point edge, in part thanks to a covered-up 18-footer at the buzzer from White. Then Frederick one-upped her teammate to end the second quarter, drilling a buzzer-beating 35-footer to extend the Valpo advantage to 44-32 at halftime.

The first six minutes of the third quarter were not kind to Valpo, as Eastern Illinois went on a 15-3 run over that span to tie the game at 47. But as if a switch had been flipped, the 3-point shooting that Valpo had become known for under Coach Evans came in droves. In a six-possession stretch, Valpo hit five 3-pointers – two each from Hales and Stoller and one by Ilysse Pitts – to quickly turn a tied game into a 15-point lead.

The defense stepped up over that same stretch, as spanning the two quarters, Valpo held EIU without a point for over eight minutes. In the end, it was a 21-0 run for the Brown and Gold to take control after the Panthers tied the game, and Valpo cruised to the victory from there to close out non-conference play.

The win closed out a perfect month of December and ensured Valpo entered MVC play on a seven-game winning streak – the program’s longest winning streak since 2002. The 8-3 record for the Brown and Gold in non-conference play set a program record as well for best winning percentage out of conference.

Leading the way in the victory was Hales, who surpassed her previous career best as she poured in a game-high 25 points. Meanwhile, White enjoyed a stat-stuffing breakout game, as she scored 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting while leading Valpo with career highs of 10 rebounds and seven assists. The junior became the first Valpo player to post a line of 20/10/7 or better since 2008. 

Evans“I am really happy with the team’s overall performance. EIU made some nice adjustments at halftime, and we got off to a slow start in the third. I thought our team committing to improving our communication and ball pressure helped spark our answer to their third-quarter run. Our players should be really proud of how they handled the adversity of losing the lead, refocusing and going on a run of our own.”

“This team deserves a lot of credit for what they have accomplished during the non-conference. They have bought in to the team concept and sacrificing personal success for the success of the team."

Hales“This was a huge team win. They were a team that played similar to us. It was a game that everything clicked for me. We had such amazing ball movement – we would swing the ball around so fast to Grace White and me, and we kept making our shots.”

Stoller“Everyone had a different sense of fire burning in them. We made some much-needed 3-pointers at the end to secure the game.”

Loyola – Jan. 24, 2020 – ARC – W 66-64

If you were at the ARC on the night of Friday, Jan. 24, you might be forgiven if you had just stayed sitting (or more likely, standing) at your seat for a few minutes after the final buzzer. After all, it took some time to process what had just occurred on the court in front of you.

What had occurred? Only one of the most epic rallies in program history. After scoring just 19 points in the first half and trailing the Ramblers 57-46 with the clock ticking under three minutes to play, Valpo completely turned the tables, out-scoring Loyola 20-7 over the final 2:52 to stun a Ramblers team that entered the game with a 13-4 record and with a perfect 8-0 mark on the road.

A comeback and run like that takes many heroes. But Frederick’s play down the stretch was perhaps one of the best one-minute stretches ever seen at the ARC. The sophomore assisted on a White 3-pointer with 52.2 seconds to play, making it a one-possession game for the first time in the second half. She then took over herself to score seven points in a stretch of 14.5 seconds – a layup with 19.7 seconds remaining, two free throws at 12.0 and another layup while being fouled with 5.2 on the clock, what would be the game-winning 3-point play. In all, the 14-point fourth quarter capped a 21-point night for Frederick to tie her career high, while Caitlin Morrison added 13 points as well – just two off her career best.

Once again, though, heroes on the 2019-20 Valpo women’s basketball team could come from anywhere. And in this victory, a hero stepped up off the bench. Freshman Zoe MacKay Zacker, who had played just 19 minutes all year entering the game and had not appeared in a game with a final margin closer than 19 points, was called upon for defensive purposes in the final couple minutes. In the game with Valpo trailing by one, Loyola owning possession and 12 seconds to play, MacKay Zacker stepped up and drew a charge as Loyola was attempting to inbound, returning possession to Valpo. Then, after Frederick’s 3-point play, MacKay Zacker deflected the Ramblers’ ensuing inbound pass to disrupt Loyola’s final set play.

In all, Valpo overcame a deficit of 14 points, its largest come-from-behind victory since 2013. The 13-point deficit it faced early in the fourth quarter was the largest it has overcome since the women’s game moved to four quarters. But both of those notes pale in comparison to the memory of the epic manner of storming back in the final three minutes.

Evans“We have really good people in this program - good people with great character, and they care a lot about each other. So they fight for each other, and I challenged them at the end of the third quarter to fight for each other - to keep working, to keep scrapping, and to control the things they could control.”

“Halfway through the fourth quarter, we tried to do some things offensively where we were just going quick, give Shay some opportunities to get to the rim and create for her teammates. I think that increased our sense of urgency, and when this team plays with a sense of urgency, we're a good team.”

“The charge drawn by Zoe was her being a heady player in that moment. She's got really good anticipatory skills, so I put her in the press there to be our safety - someone who can read things with her eyes and make plays. And she did that, she read the kid coming off the screen to the basketball, she jumped out there and made a huge play. I'm really, really proud of her.”

Frederick“When I think back to this game, I still don’t even really know what to say. The one word that comes to mind is crazy. There were so many huge plays that led to that win.”

“When Zoe took the huge charge, I have never been more pumped. That was the biggest play of the game. After that happened, I was just thinking to myself there is no way we clawed all the way back, Loyola misses their free throws and Zoe takes a huge charge for us not to win this game.”

“When I looked at Coach for the last play and she told me what to do, I tried to focus on just getting into my defender and not shying away from the contact, as I had been struggling with that the whole game. Thank gosh that ball went in. It was definitely a very memorable win and I am so glad our team came out on top after fighting back the whole game.”

Stoller“Shay Frederick took over and put everything she had in to make some key shots and plays down the stretch and at the end of the game. Zoe’s charge was HUGE at the end as well.”

Hales“Simply, the turning point in the season. Our season just kept improving after this win.”

at Illinois State – Feb. 16, 2020 – Normal, Ill. – W 78-70

Let’s approach the main storyline of this game in Jeopardy format.

Answer: One of the worst things that could happen when you’re on the road for an afternoon game the next day.

Question: What is a 2:45 a.m. fire alarm and hotel evacuation?

That’s exactly what Valpo had to face in mid-February in Normal, Ill. as it prepared to take on a top-100 Illinois State squad. But the undesired interruption to their slumber and the subsequent change in gameday routine – including the abandonment of the typical shootaround at the arena – didn’t affect at all the effort from the players, as Valpo jumped on top of the Redbirds 1:20 into the game and never trailed again in earning their first true road win over a top-100 RPI team since 2002.

The highlight of the game from an individual standpoint was the play of Stoller, who had a career game to lead the way in the victory. Stoller finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds for her first double-double of the season and shot 9-of-13 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from the 3-point line, and 4-of-4 at the foul line. 13 of Stoller’s points came in the first quarter alone, helping to stake Valpo to an 18-9 lead at the end of 10 minutes.

But right there with Stoller was the return of Profitt to the floor. Profitt suffered a torn ACL in mid-January against Bradley, her fourth career ACL injury, but rather than having surgery, she decided to fight back and play through it to finish the year. The Illinois State game was her first game back after missing the previous six, and as always, she seemed to make winning plays. In nine minutes, Profitt scored four points and grabbed three rebounds, assisted on a basket just before the shot clock expired with two minutes to play to give Valpo a six-point lead, and then blocked a shot on the defensive end on the ensuing possession.

As a team? Resiliency in the face of foul trouble is easy when you’ve already shown your resiliency with the late-night wake-up call. Illinois State shot 18 free throws in the third quarter, which ended with three Valpo starters with four fouls apiece and another with three, but despite that, Valpo lost the third quarter by just two points.

Valpo secured the game with a great team effort at the free throw line, something you might expect from a squad that finished the year fourth in the nation in team free throw percentage. It wasn’t the team’s best single-game free throw percentage of the year, but considering it was a close game against a strong opponent on the road, it might have been the team’s best performance at the line of the season. Valpo finished the win 26-of-28 at the stripe, hitting its first 19 in a row at the line and not missing its second until the final attempt with just 11 seconds to play.

Evans - “I think it shows a lot of maturity as a team to be flexible enough to handle the change to their typical game-day routine and the adversity of getting into some late foul trouble. We talked a lot about controlling the things that we can control the last couple of weeks, and I think they did a great job staying focused and doing that. I am really proud of the way they kept any of that stuff from creeping into their heads, stayed focused on the game plan and played every possession the best that we could.”

Hales“We have a history of never playing well at Illinois State – for three years we went there and shot awful. Playing in their gym is hard. But this year, we were confident and stepped out onto the court for warmups with confidence. You would think because of the fire alarm messing up our shootaround schedule, we would be nervous, but this year was different. We knew we would win every game we played.”

Frederick“This was such a huge win for us. We had just come off a disappointing loss to Bradley and we could have folded. But we came together as a team and figured things out and beat a really good team. We also overcame the fire alarm evacuation at our hotel the night before that game. That was something I will never forget. Addy was an absolute killer this game. She came out hot and our team really fed off that. It was a great team win and gave us a lot of momentum going forward.”

Stoller“Just a ‘Wow’ type of game. Everyone brought the energy on both the defensive and offensive ends of the court. We laid it all out there and played for each other. Our determination and drive to compete at Illinois State was incredible and a ton of fun.”

UNI – Feb. 28, 2020 – ARC – W 72-69

It didn’t require a flashy comeback or feature a ton of 3-pointers. But it might have been even more satisfying for Valpo to just stand toe-to-toe for 40 minutes with one of the MVC’s best teams, a program that had advanced to the postseason five consecutive years, and emerge on top with a three-point victory – a win that assured Valpo of its first winning season since the 2008-09 campaign.

It was a back-and-forth game throughout the first three quarters, and fittingly entered the fourth quarter tied at 54. One big run looked like it could give either team control, and it was Valpo that put together the crucial stretch to open the fourth quarter. Frederick, Weinman and Pitts combined for all the Valpo points in a 10-2 run over the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, with Pitts canning a corner 3-pointer to force a UNI timeout with the Brown and Gold enjoying a 64-56 lead.

UNI wouldn’t go away without a fight, closing to within one possession three times in a three-minute stretch in the final five minutes. But all three times, Valpo came up with points on its next offensive trip, none more important than a deep 3-pointer from Weinman with the shot clock winding down and less than two minutes to play to push Valpo’s advantage to six points. UNI eventually got the ball back with a chance to tie in the final seconds, but a last-second effort from deep was blocked by Frederick to ensure Valpo came out victorious.

Frederick led the way in the victory as she poured in a career-best 22 points, going 8-of-16 from the field and 5-of-6 from the foul line. The win was Valpo’s first over UNI since joining The Valley, and was Valpo’s second top-100 RPI win in its last three games, after going nearly seven years (Detroit; March 9, 2013) since its last win over a top-100 opponent.

Evans - “We talked before the game about how we needed to battle for 40 minutes. We talked about how we were going to go on runs and they were going to go on runs - we just needed to stay together and lean into each other when UNI's runs were happening and stay solid. They did that, they stayed together. UNI shot the ball really well in the first half - we felt like that wouldn't last the whole game, and our players came up big in the fourth quarter and came up with some big stops.”

Frederick“This game was really important for our team. We knew we could compete with UNI, but we just hadn’t been able to get over the hump in past games. After the game, I just remember the team being really excited as we had just strung together a few huge wins after beating Illinois State a few weeks before and then the win at Loyola the week before. It was a great feeling to finally see our hard work paying off and getting the results we wanted.”

Stoller“This was a record-breaking game by being our 16th win of the season (most since 2006-07) and our eighth win in MVC play for the season (most since joining the MVC). We never gave up and kept fighting.”

at Southern Illinois – March 7, 2020 – Carbondale, Ill. – W 69-58

The 2019-20 season was a turnaround season across the board – a turnaround not just from the previous season, but from the results of the last decade-plus. But the in-season improvement from Valpo was palpable as well, and no game showcased that improvement better than what turned out to be the season finale at Southern Illinois.

Back in early January, Valpo opened the MVC slate at home against Southern Illinois and fell by 16 points to the Salukis, after which Evans talked about she wasn’t “…quite sure we were ready for the physicality of this game.” Two months later, facing SIU on the road in the regular season finale, Valpo was ready to battle SIU in every aspect of the game.

And battle they did. SIU scored the first six points of the game, and from there, the fight was on, as that was the largest advantage for either team in the first three quarters. It was a two-point Valpo lead at the end of the first quarter, a one-point advantage to SIU at halftime. Weinman then knocked down a 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the third quarter to put Valpo on top by two with 10 minutes to play.

A quick spurt to start the fourth quarter provided the separation Valpo needed to take control. Profitt, playing major minutes for just the second time since her injury, drilled a 28-foot 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down on Valpo’s first possession of the period. A putback from White was followed by another triple from Hales, as Valpo opened the quarter with a quick 8-2 run to push the lead to eight points with eight minutes left.

From there, a pair of strengths which had shone throughout the season came to the forefront again: defense and free throw shooting. The defense held SIU without a field goal for a stretch of over five and a half minutes in the fourth quarter, keeping the Salukis at bay. Valpo then secured the game with its reliability at the charity stripe, hitting 9-of-10 from the foul line in the final two minutes to close out the win.

The win gave Valpo its best MVC record in three years as a conference member and secured what would have been a bye into the quarterfinals of Hoops in the Heartland. Valpo also secured a 5-4 record on the road in conference play, its best conference road record since the 2006-07 season, and closed out a 6-3 mark for the program in the second half of MVC play.

Evans - “Our players showed a tremendous amount of toughness and composure. It was an extremely physical contest, and I thought that from the first media timeout on, we matched SIU’s aggressiveness for the remainder of the game. My staff and I challenged our players to play this game one stop and one score at a time and to stay together through any adversity that they might face. I think they really stepped up and did that throughout the game.”

“This team has continued to make just getting better every day their sole focus. We try not to talk too much about results and just try to learn and grow every game. They have stayed connected on and off the court and continue to fight with and for each other every day. They show up and do the work, and it is nice to see that they have been rewarded with getting some positive results in February and March.”

“We talked before the season about building a championship program and culture here at Valpo, and this team being the foundation for what we are building for the future. Not playing in the first round was something that they wanted to set as a goal this year, so I am excited for this group and proud of them for achieving that goal.”

Stoller“This was our last game without knowing it was the last. I could not have been prouder of how the team played. We battled, controlled what we could control, and played our hearts out. This win signified what Valpo Women’s Basketball is all about – toughness, fight, and the love that we share for each other and the game of basketball.”

Frederick“This was probably one of the biggest games of the year for us. We saw SIU the very first weekend of conference and we didn’t play our best, and now we were facing them at the very end and we felt like we were a completely different team and had something to prove. This was another huge game especially because it decided if we played Thursday in the tournament, and it was a goal of ours to not play on Thursday.”

“I remember this being a really physical and tough game, but we found ways to get stops and make plays and we came out with the win. Our locker room was so pumped after this game. Honestly, it was just so rewarding and exciting to see we had finished the end of conference really strong and were continuing to accomplish things Valpo hasn’t accomplished in a long time.”

“Looking back now, this game means even more because it was our last game together as a team and we didn’t know it. We had so much we were looking forward to and to continue to accomplish, but we won’t know how this year’s story would have ended. But I do know that I am so thankful for this team, all we accomplished together and I’m glad we got to end the way we did with this game.”

Hales“We were so pumped up the entire shootaround. You could tell we were going to win the game before it started. We wanted it more. One of our goals at the beginning of the year was to not play on Thursday, and we knew this game would determine that.”

“I felt like myself again after not shooting well for a few games. I knew that every time I released the ball, it was going to go in. After that game, I was so excited to play in the tournament because I knew I was going to keep shooting well.”

“I still can’t believe that it was my last game ever and I did not know it. I have worked hard at trying to be the best shooter on the floor for many years, and I am glad that is what my last memory will be. And even better, we ended by winning a very important game. Even though the season did not end how we wanted, we ended in the best way possible.”