Before the 2018 regular season even began, the St. Mary's Women's Basketball team believed they could compete with the nation's best.
On Nov. 23rd, that belief became a reality.
Playing in their first home game of the season at the St. Mary's Thanksgiving Classic, the Rattlers erased a double-digit third-quarter deficit and stunned the defending national champions, the top-ranked Central Missouri Jennies, at Bill Greehey Arena, 101-97, in double-overtime.
It was the biggest upset in program history.
"It was just a great game," said head coach Jason Martens. "To play the number one team in the nation and beat them, and just to open up the home season was great. I'm so proud of our girls. They played with tremendous poise, tremendous energy, and to get that victory was a true testament to how tough these girls are."
"Everyone just did their part," senior guard Kaitlin Walla said. "Hanna Wilson had a double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds), Arysia Porter didn't even play the full game and had four steals. Everyone played their role, and when you do that, when everyone plays in a cohesive manner and works together, you make great things happen."
In the win, the Rattlers dominated the boards, outrebounding the Jennies 46-37. They also shot the ball well, finishing with marks above their season averages in field goal percentage (45.8%) and three-point percentage (47.8%). Most importantly, after such an emotional win, there was no letdown the following afternoon against Kutztown. St. Mary's mounted an 11 point lead at halftime and cruised to a 55-45 victory, en route to an impressive 7-1 overall record.
It's a stark contrast from the way the team started last season. Early in 2017, the Rattlers were plagued by injuries, losing their first three games of the season and six of their first eight. A seven-game winning streak toward the end of the season provided a bright spot, as St. Mary's finished with a 16-13 overall record. A lot of this current team's success can be traced back to last season's late surge.
"Last year we were really banged up," Martens explained. "We started off really bad, and then started playing our best basketball at the end of the season. This year it has just carried over. We played a lot of freshmen last year and now those freshmen are sophomores. They have a lot of experience, so they've just carried that experience over and it's really helped us out this year."
The young guns have certainly provided a spark offensively. Through the first eight games of the season, sophomores Soteria Banks (10.5 ppg), Hannah Wilson (10.1 ppg), Mya Culiver (5.1 ppg) and Audrey Wandji (3.5 ppg) account for nearly half of St. Mary's average total offensive output.
"There's so much potential with what we have," said senior point guard Arysia Porter. "There's so many different puzzle pieces, so many strengths and all we have to do is pull it together. If we're doing good now, just imagine if we find the full puzzle and fit all of the pieces together. I feel like we're at a good place right now."
"Every game we've progressively gotten better," Walla explained. "Coach has always said we don't want to be playing our best basketball here at the beginning of the season, we want to play it in March. I love how this team is consistently progressing."
Even with the youth movement in full effect, Walla and Porter continue to pace the Rattlers. Walla is the team's leading scorer this season, averaging 17.5 points per game. Porter is right behind her at 14.7 points per game. But it's how they lead on and off the court, along with fellow senior Crystal Thomas, that is just as critical to the team's success.
"We're a family," Walla said. "We all have our different roles. I think we all get along really well, we care about each other, and that correlates to our play on the court, too."
"We've been practicing for a month now, and I think we've had one bad practice," said Martens. "That says a lot about our leadership. We have three great seniors that just make sure we're ready to go every day. This team just hates to lose. They battle and fight each other every day in practice, and they want to win so bad."
After opening the season playing eight games in 16 days, the Rattlers are now coming off a two week break, their longest of the season. With plenty of time to rest, relax and -- most importantly -- heal, the team has found a new motivation in their daily grind.
"We put our name on the map," Walla said. "People are going to target us now, so we have to come to each game with something new. We're not going to be the same team you expected, we're going to keep on getting better."
"The main message has just been focusing more on ourselves, just getting our plays down, learning how to execute them and just trying to apply them to the game," explained Porter. "It's all about going through the basics, starting from the fundamentals and getting the little things right."
That forward thinking mentality will serve the Rattlers well. St. Mary's is already receiving votes in national poll rankings, and they've shown that they can beat the nation's best.
Now their sights are set on an even bigger goal.
"Honestly, I feel like we can win Nationals," Porter said. "I feel like we can go far. First of course, we've got to win the conference, but I feel like we could do anything we want."
"I want to be playing in the last game of the season," said Walla. "We just proved that we could beat a national champion, so why not be one?"