Daily Double: Loyola basketball scores pair of conference tournament championships
With scholarships at a minimum and a maximum amount of attention focused on attracting top student-athletes, with a heavy emphasis on students, Loyola New Orleans basketball has competed well in recent years.
The Grade Point Average has always been a bright spot for both the men’s and women’s programs at Loyola.
The Wolf Pack women have enjoyed great success on the hardwood while the men have posted several winning seasons. .
Now, the two Wolf Pack teams have reached new levels, with both teams winning Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament championship titles this past weekend at Montgomery, Ala.
The 24th-ranked Loyola women repeated as conference tournament champions, downing No. 15 Bethel 73-65 in the title game behind 30 points from Kaila Anthony. Presley Wascom added 10 points.
With the win, Loyola improved to 26-6, winning at least 26 games for the third straight year, and the Wolf Pack captured the SSAC tournament for the fourth time in five years under Kelli Kennedy, who has been on the job since 2008 when she took over for DoBee Plaisance, who guided the Wolf Pack for 13 years and put the program in the NAIA national tournament and Final Eight.
Kennedy has continued that success in outstanding fashion.
“It never gets old,” Kennedy said. “I think I say that every year. It is our sixth straight year with a championship, either in the regular season or in the tournament. I think experience matters in that situation. I feel our team is playing its best basketball of the year. Last year, we lost the player of the year in the league and the defensive player of the year in the league. It took us time to grow this season.”
Ironically, it took a key injury for the Wolf Pack to find their identity.
“In the beginning of the year, we were trying to find out who we were,” Kennedy said. “ We played without Kaila for four weeks with a broken finger. We endured, won all but one game and got her back. I do feel like it helped some of our young kids mature with Kaila out and it made us a better team when she returned.”
Kennedy likes where her team is entering the tournament and sees one area that they must work hard on.
“I think we’re playing pretty well right now,” Kennedy said. “We have been trying emphasize rebounding, keeping opponents off the boards. That is a focus moving forward. We have to continue to be competitive in that phase.”
With the win, the Wolf Pack advance to the NAIA national tournament in Billings, Montana Mar. 13-14. The draw will take place this Wednesday.
“I think we’ll be a five or six-seed,” Kennedy said. I think the high there (Billings) yesterday was minus two degrees. We’ll go play anywhere.”
While the Loyola women are in the national tournament for the fourth time in five years, the Loyola men are in rare air.
The Wolf Pack of Stacy Hollowell downed Middle Georgia State 78-74 in the championship game Saturday.
Freshman Myles Burns had 17 points and 12 rebounds and he was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. Sophomore Terry Smith, Jr. had 15 points and 12 rebounds while senior Ethan Turner added 14 points for the Wolf Pack. Freshman Zach Wrightsil had eight points. Loyola overcame 25 turnovers in the victory.
Loyola improved to 21-11 with the win.
In his fifth season as the head coach, Hollowell has guided the Wolf Pack to five consecutive winning seasons. He originally came to Loyola as an assistant under Mike Giorlando, who did an excellent job with the program from 2004-2013 after he succeeded Jerry Hernandez, who served for 13 years.
“It means everything to me,” Hollowell said. “It is a stress that all coaches put on their shoulders. It was elusive for us. I am very emotional. It is very hard to describe. It is an honor to represent our university and bring the championship home to Loyola.”
While the present is a great place for Loyola men’s basketball, the future is even brighter.
“Zach Wrightsil was named freshman of the year for our league,” Hollowell said. “He was as first-team all-conference player, a top five guy in points, rebounds and assists in the league. He is special and has a great future. He can play all five positions for us. Burns was defensive player of the year as a freshman and he leads the nation in total steals. Both are gifted. Cameron Dumas has been really good for us. It is real exciting to have those guys. They are a nice core of players to build around.”
While the title is a surprise to some, it is not to Hollowell.
“Our seniors have provided great leadership,” Hollowell said. “We knew we were talented enough to make a run, we just never could seem to get past two or three games in a row. Part of it was youth, part of it was really understanding the value of possession after we had lost seven or eight games by one or two possessions. When we grew to understand that, we were able to break through.”
Pairings will be announced on March 13 with the NAIA tournament starting March 20 in Kansas City, MO.
With the sweep, Loyola became the first school since Southern Polytechnic in the 2009-2010 season to win both the women’s and men’s championships.
“I’m so happy for Stacy,” Kennedy said. “They are young, talented and work so hard. Our men and women’s teams cheer so hard for one another. They really do. Our men’s team is most often our biggest and loudest supporter, as a whole. It is great for our school and our programs.”
With a proud history, Loyola won the 1945 National Intercollegiate Basketball title, prior to the NCAA tournament coming into existence.
“I had heard about all of the greats in Loyola history and earlier this year,” Hollowell said. “I moved into a tie for fourth with Bill Gardner in wins,” Hollowell said. “I researched it and found out so much about the history. I connected with Bill’s son. I talked to Ed Galvin recently. I searched through the archives. It has been neat to reconnect with the history and we hope we are adding to it and getting our alumni interested once again. I got a real nice message from Coach Hernandez and another from Coach Giorlando. That is special.”
Hollowell was thrilled with the support his team received from the Loyola women.
“Their girls, after every game, are the loudest cheers in the gym,” Hollowell said. “They stormed the court after we won the tournament. Kelli gave me a big hug. It is a credit to the kind of kids we are both bringing in. They enjoy being around one another. It is a great place to work.”
Loyola made the decision to discontinue its NCAA athletics programs in 1972, a very unpopular move with many locals and graduates, including my later father and I. The athletics program was reinstated in 1991 and now competes on the NAIA level. Our son graduated from Loyola and even worked for a year at the Recreational Complex where both teams play. I was blessed to do Wolf Pack men’s games on radio for seven years.
The basketball program was a good one when it was dropped in 1972 and its best players, John Kardzoniak and Phil Hicks, transferred to Tulane.
It is good once again, thanks to Hernandez, Giorlando and Hollowell, who has taken it to a different level. The same is true with Kennedy.
It was Giorlando who hired both Hollowell and Kennedy at Loyola.
“I couldn’t be more proud of both,” Giorlando said. “Both of these coaches have worked extremely hard to put a great program together. Kelli has been doing it for a while now and has recruited great young women to represent Loyola. Stacy has done a phenomenal job of getting to the tournament twice now and winning the league for the first time.”
Giorlando is bullish on Hollowell as well.
“Coach Hernandez won the tournament back in 1995 at a different level,” Giorlando said. “Stacy has done it by putting together excellent young talent with experienced players. I am so happy for both of them. I hope they can keep it going and surprise some people in Billings and in Kansas City. Both are so deserving. They do it the right way.”
Giorlando sees nothing but good things moving forward for the Wolf Pack.
“Kelli has proven that she can field a consistent winner,” Giorlando said. “Stacy has grown the program to a higher level since I departed. It is a great time to be a Loyola supporter.”
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…