Olmstead, Billikens hit stride at right time, capture WNIT title

Apr. 17—When the clock wound down and hit zero, the Saint Louis University women's basketball coaching staff had a group hug.

The long season had just ended with a Women's National Invitational Tournament championship, a 69-50 decision over the University of Minnesota in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Jessica Olmstead, a Conneaut graduate, and Saint Louis University had a goal of making the the NCAA Division I women's tournament entering the season after making an appearance last season.

Counting her last one at Longwood University two years ago, it would have been three straight seasons a coaching staff Olmstead was on participated in the women's tournament.

But the best laid plans don't always work out. Situations happen during a season and Saint Louis didn't advance.

But the consolation prize wasn't too shabby, either, for Olmstead, who is Director of Scouting and Program Development for the Billikens.

"We won five of six heading into the WNIT," she said.

After bowing out of the A10 tournament with a 68-62 loss to Rhode Island, Saint Louis captured six wins in 16 days to win the crown.

"We were trying to find our chemistry," Olmstead said. "We hit our stride in February."

In the five WNIT tournament games leading up to the championship game, the Billikens won by a combined 21 points.

"This group of women really came together," Olmstead said. "We kept our heads down and watched film almost every day. The group that was with us last year kept believing."

Saint Louis finished 22-18 overall, 8-9 in the conference.

They recorded a 93-85 early-season win over Missouri in November.

"We added a few new players, and started out great," Olmstead said.

In the course of the season, though, the Billikens went through ebbs and flows.

"We battled injuries," Olmstead said. "In the A10 semifinal game, our post player went down with a terrible injury two minutes into the game. That was pretty hard for our women to try and overcome."

Saint Louis went through a five-game losing streak in mid-December.

"We still thought there was more for us to learn and do together," Olmstead said. "We had to win six straight. They had a belief they could beat another Big Ten team in the WNIT championship game."

After a 79-64 loss to Fordham on Feb. 21, the Billikens reeled off wins over St. Bonaventure 83-61, LaSalle 78-57, Davidson by forfeit and Knox College 119-42 to close the regular season.

In the A-10 tournament, Saint Louis defeated George Washington 75-68 and VCU 65-63 before the loss to Rhode Island.

The Billikens had three players average in double figures for the 2023-24 campaign.

Peyton Kennedy led the way at 16.9 points per game, followed by Kyla McMakin at 16.7 and Brooklyn Gray, 10.7.

McMakin transferred to Saint Louis when Rebecca Tillett took over as the Billikens head coach. McMakin had played for Tillett at Longwood.

After Saint Louis won the WNIT championship, the coaching staff hopped a plane and headed to Cleveland for the Women's Final Four.

"It was really, really great for women's basketball," Olmstead said. 'It's exciting."

The Women's Final Four semifinal game between UConn and Iowa drew 14.2 million viewers. But that was topped by the championship contest between South Carolina and Iowa, which had a record 18.88 million viewers.

Stars like South Carolina's Kamilla Cardoso, UConn's Paige Bueckers and Iowa's Caitlin Clark were on display.

Clark became a known sensation during the 2023-24 season after becoming the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer among men's or women's players.

"She's like Steph Curry [the Golden State Warriors superstar guard]," Olmstead said of Clark. "She's also an incredible passer."

South Carolina ended up defeating Iowa 87-75.

After taking some time off, Olmstead and Saint Louis will get back to work in preparation for the 2024-25 season.

"We have a nice core coming back, and three freshman that can come in and help us out," she said.

Olmstead is also finding a comfort level with the Saint Louis area.

"There's a lot to do here," she said.

Inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, Olmstead totaled more than 1,600 points in her high school career to break Conneaut High School's scoring record for both the boys' and girls' programs.

She was twice named NEC Player of the Year and earned All-Ohio first team honors as a senior after leading Conneaut to a 21-3 record and the program's first regional appearance in school history.