Lady Blue Jays charge into postseason

David Klaffenbach/Contributed photo: Westminster College junior guard Rachel Backes dribbles around a Principia College defender during the Lady Blue Jays’ 85-47 SLIAC victory at Elsah, Ill., on Tuesday night. Top-seeded Westminster hosts the SLIAC postseason tournament starting with tonight’s semifinals.

David Klaffenbach/Contributed photo: Westminster College junior guard Rachel Backes dribbles around a Principia College defender during the Lady Blue Jays’ 85-47 SLIAC victory at Elsah, Ill., on Tuesday night. Top-seeded Westminster hosts the SLIAC postseason tournament starting with tonight’s semifinals.

In the stairwell just to the side of Westminster Gymnasium, Lady Blue Jays basketball coach Tracey Braden wore her excitement for the coming week in her eyes.

Westminster closed out the regular season Tuesday night with an 85-47 blowout of Principia College in Elsah, Ill. With a pristine 16-0 mark, Braden and the Lady Blue Jays emphatically topped off their first-ever SLIAC championship in the program’s 19-year history and improved to 19-5 on the season.

In just her fourth year running the show at Westminster, Braden decided to keep it real. In no way, shape or form did she see her team going on the run that it has to this point. At least not at first, and certainly not like this.

“I didn’t see it coming in October, I didn’t see it coming in November or December,” Braden said. “But each game I progressively saw us getting better in little ways that made me think at the end of the year, we’d be right where we want to be.

“Did I expect us to be 15-0 (before Tuesday night’s SLIAC game)? Not until the middle of January. In the middle of January, I felt this could be a really special team. But before that I felt that we could win the league, but not to the extent of what they’ve done.”

The Lady Blue Jays also earned the privilege of hosting the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament, commencing with tonight’s semifinals. In the first matchup at 6, No. 2 seed Fontbonne University (16-9) squares off against No. 3 Webster University (15-10).

No. 1 seed Westminster then meets No. 4 Greenville (Ill.) College in the second game at 8.

The tournament championship is set for 1 p.m. Saturday.

The numbers speak volumes about this particular bunch of Lady Blue Jays. So far, they’ve accumulated the most single-season wins in school history, as well as the longest conference and overall winning streak at 16 and 14 games, respectively.

Not that any of that was the main objective.

Westminster’s last loss — 94-73 to Hawaii Pacific — came on New Year’s Day, leaving the Lady Blue Jays at 5-5. Westminster has been impressive since then, with 10 of its 14 victories coming by double-digit margins.

“We can glorify ourselves on that, but that wasn’t our goal this year,” junior point guard Rachel Backes said. “Our goal wasn’t to be undefeated in conference, but our goal was to get that championship and then win the tournament.”

Backes is fifth in the SLIAC in scoring (14.3 points per game) and leads the conference in assists per game at 4.4 — a full assist higher than the player in second place, Greenville’s Ieisha Adams.

Braden’s roster boasts six players averaging at least 7.0 points a game.

“I told the girls in film session that one of the other great things about us is that on any given night, somebody can step up and be our leading scorer,” Braden said. “It can come from different areas and different people.”

That diversity, senior forward Sarah Kirchoff noted, makes the Lady Blue Jays more difficult to defend.

“We have a lot of people on our team that can contribute any night,” Kirchoff said. “And that makes it harder for other teams to adjust and play us.”

As wild of a ride as it has been to the top of the conference for Braden, Kirchoff has been right there with her. A California, Mo., native, Kirchoff was recruited by former Westminster head coach Scot Billey.

Braden took over the Lady Blue Jays just a few weeks before the start of the 2007-2008 school year.

“When I came into the program, she was coming in too and she just came in and turned it all around,” Kirchoff said. “She believed in this program and put everything into it.”

Backes believes Braden is the primary reason for the Westminster women’s rising fortunes.

“She’ll never tell you this and she’ll be the first one to tell you it’s all the players and not her, but we owe so much to her and know that we wouldn’t be where we are without her,” Backes said. “She had a goal in mind that she was going to flip this program around and she’s ingrained that in our brains.”

Now the Lady Blue Jays deal with being the hunted. Never mind the streak, which means less now that postseason play is starting. The goose egg in the conference loss column has Westminster knowing it is going to receive every team’s best shot.

The Lady Blue Jays’ best SLIAC showing under Braden was a second-place finish in the 2008-09 season, which resulted in her being named the conference co-coach of the year.

So while Braden has even higher hopes for this Westminster squad, she can at least sit back and appreciate how far the program has come in four seasons.

“Everyone is 0-0 now and everyone has to go into it like that, and I also think we have to go into it with the mindset that this is just icing on the cake,” said Braden, the winningest women’s coach in school history with a 55-43 career record. “Postseason play is the icing on the cake, so let’s have fun with this, let’s work hard and let’s do the things that got us here.”

• • • • •

•Notes: The outcomes of the Lady Blue Jays’ two regular-season victories over Greenville sharply contrasted each other. Westminster bolted to an 83-65 win over the Lady Panthers on Jan. 12 in Fulton, but then the Lady Blue Jays were forced to hold on for a 74-70 victory at Greenville on Feb. 5.

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