Sioux City, IA — The women of Saint Xavier are playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. After closing the regular season with nine straight victories and a CCAC North division crown, the Cougars entered the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed.
Following a 100-52 opening round victory against Trinity Christian and a 104-72 win over No. 15 Purdue University Northwest in the semifinals, Saint Xavier traveled to undefeated University of Saint Francis for the right to be called the best team in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
Led by a combined 61 points from Mikayla Leyden, Kara Krolicki, and Brittany Collins, the Cougars decisively claimed the CCAC Championship and handed the Fighting Saints their first loss of the season, 88-64. The women are riding a wave of momentum to Iowa for the NAIA National Championships as the No. 1 seed in the Duer Bracket.
Highlights courtesy of SXU Athletics
“You always want to end the season on a positive note going into the tournament,” said head coach Bob Hallberg. “I was very pleased about our performance against Saint Francis. We played well on both ends of the floor and we have to hope it carries over to the National Tournament.”
Last season, Saint Xavier’s title run ended prematurely at the hands of Goshen College in the second round. For the Cougars to be successful this time, the women must find a way to generate and maintain their own energy on a neutral floor at the Tyson Events Center.
A common mindset shared among the No. 1 seeded Cougars revolves around intensity, and it starts in practice.
“One thing we have to bring every night is intensity,” junior center Brittany Collins said. “We always try to maintain our intensity during practice, so every practice is treated like a game. Our team attitude is also really important. We are always motivating each other and feeding off each other’s energy to get the best out of our game.”
“Everybody talks about the importance of team chemistry on and off the court, but I think that this year we are a very close team,” junior guard Kara Krolicki added. “We’re very competitive with each other, but in a healthy way. We always want to make each other better in practice.”
Both Krolicki and Collins are integral pieces to the Cougars’ success. Krolicki is the country’s second most efficient scorer and reigns as the best 3-point shooter in school history. Collins, to her credit, broke Saint Xavier’s single season block record and ranks among the best in the country in rebounding.
The value the two juniors bring on a nightly basis is a luxury coach Hallberg is thankful to have. However, when it comes to tournament play, experience could be a game changer.
Nine players will be making the trip back to Sioux City, while several will be back for a second, third, or even a fourth time. For freshman Chanel Fanter and Maddie Welter, it will be their first taste of a National Tournament atmosphere. Coach Hallberg has confidence that all of his players will rise to the occasion.
“We have two freshmen who haven’t been down here before that start for us, but both have been playing well,” coach Hallberg said. “Especially the way Fanter stepped up against Saint Francis and knocked down those four big three’s in a pressure type situation. On a neutral floor you want to let the opponent be the visiting team. You have to turn a sometimes quiet atmosphere into a positive as if it’s your home court.”
Two of Saint Xavier’s three major goals have been accomplished to this point: a CCAC North Division title and a CCAC tournament championship. The label of “Best in the Country” is up for grabs and it’s the one the Cougars want most.
First up is the River States Conference Runner-Up and No. 8 seeded Indiana University Kokomo (21-12). Saint Xavier will get its chance on the hardwood on Thursday, March 9 at 5:15 PM central.
WXAV will have all the action from Iowa. You can listen to the Cougars’ title run live on WXAV.com or 88.3 FM Chicago.
Senior Sports Editor