Loyola Maryland women’s basketball is a win away from first regular-season conference title in 39 years

Loyola Maryland women’s basketball runs on defense, Lex Therien and … ice cream.

Since Danielle O’Banion took over in April 2021, she installed a tradition of celebrating road wins with stops for ice cream on the return trips back to campus. The reward naturally has more admirers than detractors among the players.

“We know that getting ice cream after a road win is a definite,” said Therien, a junior power forward. “So we let that fuel us to try and win the game.”

For O’Banion, the practice is an acknowledgment of the players’ determination to leave an opposing arena with a coveted result. “It’s hard to win,” she said.

By now, the Greyhounds might have built up a natural resistance to lactose intolerance. They have eight victories away from Reitz Arena, which is the most since the 2010-11 squad had 10.

More significantly, Loyola is on the cusp of capturing at least a share of the Patriot League regular-season championship, which would be the program’s first crown in 39 years of being aligned with a conference. The Greyhounds (15-13, 10-7) are tied with reigning champion Boston University (18-10, 10-7) and Holy Cross (16-12, 10-7) atop the standings, and a win against visiting American (9-19, 7-10) on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. would give them at least a share of a regular-season conference title for the first time in program history.

Loyola can get anywhere between the Nos. 1 and 5 seeds for next week’s Patriot League Tournament via 32 tiebreaker scenarios. The players are happy about having a chance to make history.

“We’re here, and we’re playing together, and we’re having fun,” junior point guard Laura Salmerón said. “We’re in a good position. So we have to enjoy the moment, too.”

Reaching this stage seemed unlikely after the Greyhounds’ first two seasons under O’Banion when they went a combined 15-45 overall and 6-30 in the Patriot League. But O’Banion was encouraged when Therien and shooting guard Kelly Ratigan approached her with a message after a season-ending 66-52 loss at Boston University exactly a year ago.

“Alexa and Kelly came up to me in the locker room after the game and said, ‘We’re going to get this done,’” O’Banion recalled. “In that moment, I was really grateful that two returning players wanted to take that on and saw that was a possibility for the program. And the second part of that is, it’s my responsibility as a coach to make sure that they are held to a standard where that actually could become a possibility. I tell them all the time that they signed a permission slip for us to coach them and hold them to a high standard.”

The 6-foot-1 Therien is doing her part. The 2021-22 Patriot League Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Conference second-team selection is averaging a double-double with 16.1 points and 10.2 rebounds (10.2), leads the team in steals per game (1.5), and ranks second in assists per game (1.8) and third in minutes (29.4). Therien and Boston University senior center Caitlin Weimar are the only players in the league averaging a double-double.

But Loyola is more than a one-player show. Salmerón leads the team in assists (2.6) and minutes (33.6) per game and ranks second in points (9.3) and third in rebounds (2.7) and steals (1.3).

O’Banion also cited improved play from freshman shooting guard Kimmie Hicks, an Annapolis native and St. Frances graduate who is averaging 11.2 points against Patriot League foes; graduate student small forward Ava Therien, Lex’s older sister who is averaging 7.1 points in conference play; and sophomore point guard Meliah Van-Otoo and freshmen center Lily Bottomley. And the defense ranks third in the conference in points allowed (60.9).

O’Banion said she has noticed a strong bond between the players, whom she said grade highly in what she calls “energy” behaviors such as high-fiving each other, calling out screens and supporting the players on the floor. She also noted that the team’s six international players were invited to the homes of Ava and Lex Therien in New Jersey and freshman point guard Kailey Kalet in New York for Thanksgiving and sophomore power forward Ally Lovisolo and her family in New Jersey for Christmas.

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“We had good chemistry in the last two years but this year, we’re all together and having fun,” Salmerón said, adding that the players often go out for sushi or ramen for dinner and watch basketball games and “Manifest” on Netflix. “We’re pushing each other every day to be better. We did that in the other years, too, but I feel like this year, we’re having fun, too.”

That fun has extended to the court. The Greyhounds, who are 7-6 at home, have an opportunity to cement their first winning season at Reitz Arena since the 2015-16 team went 8-6, and could add that to that if they earn a top-four seed in the Patriot League Tournament and host a quarterfinal game Monday night.

Therien said she has already noticed a shift in opponents’ attitudes.

“We used to be the team where other teams were like, ‘Oh, it’s Loyola. That’s an easy win,’” she said. “Teams now don’t want to come play us, and I think that’s a really great thing. We’ve got to start going into other people’s gyms thinking that we are the team to beat. I think teams are starting to put some respect on our name, and I think the girls are responding well, and we’re really harping on staying where our feet are.”

O’Banion is cautious about looking past American. But she is also quick to vouch for what she thinks Loyola is capable of.

“One of the things we talked about candidly with this group was that the sky is the limit and that they see it now, and I do think this is the year for anybody to win the Patriot League Tournament,” she said. “If you look at the standings right now, they’re a zoo, and that’s what a competitor would want. When you look at our body of work, we’ve competed well against every team in our league, and I think the year when we can realistically expect to do whatever it takes to win.”

Regular-season finale

American at Loyola Maryland

Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Stream: ESPN+