- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The Atlantic 10 opener was a big letdown for Saint Louis’ women’s team, an overtime loss at home to so-so George Mason.

It also might have been the turning point for one of the nation’s success stories.

The Billikens have set school record for victories (19) and conference victories (9) and are tied for third in the A-10. That’s a huge step forward for a program that was a combined 39-53 with no winning records in coach Lisa Stone’s first three seasons.

They’ve won nine of 11 since the conference opener, a run that began with consecutive road victories over VCU and Davidson. They were sparked by two grueling practices the days after the George Mason setback.

“We didn’t show up, had no energy,” Stone said. “In 30 years as a head coach I’m not sure I’ve directed two more difficult practices than those two. Our response was amazing.”

Players were as disappointed as their coach and were ready for the tough love that featured lots of sprints.

“We just had to show we weren’t going to be complacent,” said sophomore guard Jackie Kemph, who leads the team with averages of 16 points and seven assists. “We knew it was going to be a tough couple of days - anything you did wrong, you were going to know about it.”

Saint Louis (19-6, 9-3) has another test at home Thursday night against A-10 co-leader Duquesne (21-2, 11-1), which is getting votes in the Top 25. The team that’s setting new standards with every victory, long ago clinching its first winning season since 2002-3, has no lack of confidence.

“I think it’s an NCAA resume-building game,” Stone said. “I don’t tell our kids that because we try to treat every game the same, but people know they’re very good. It’s an RPI-building game for us, it’s a strength of schedule game and it’s a home game, one of our last two.”

The Billikens were picked to finish in the middle of the conference this season after a promising 15-16 record with two and sometimes three freshmen starting, and too many blown leads marring the picture.

Those kids are growing up, fleshing out a roster that also features 6-foot-3 junior center Sadie Stipanovich, daughter of former Missouri star and NBA player Steve Stipanovich, and hard-nosed senior guard Jamesia Price. Stipanovich is averaging 12.1. points and six rebounds and is closing in on 1,000 career points, and Price, who has overcome three knee surgeries, is averaging nine points, three assists and a team-leading two steals.

Already, Kemph is just 10 assists shy of setting a school career record.

All five starters are back, so Stone naturally counted on a bit of a breakthrough - although maybe not this big. Sophomore guard Jenny Vliet also starts and sophomore guard Aaliyah Covington is the top scorer off the bench.

“I figured this year we’d maybe get to some type of postseason play, and next season will be even better,” Stone said. “And the next season after that will be better.”

The Billikens set another school best with seven consecutive conference victories. They lead the A-10 in scoring in conference play, averaging 72.9 points and have been winning big, with seven of the last eight victories by double digits.

A light pre-conference schedule accounts for a so-so RPI of 74, so there’s need for upgrading the competition. Still, after all of the down years and low expectations, they’ve earned the right to savor these days.

“It’s fun to win, it really is,” Covington said. “This is what we’ve been working so hard to do, to win and enjoy it.”

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