The Portland State University women’s basketball team was down to its last shot. The Vikings had battled back from a 16-point first-quarter deficit on the road against UC Irvine on Dec. 16, but with the final seconds ticking down they needed one more bucket to make their comeback complete.
This was Sidney Rielly’s opportunity to validate all her hard work from the offseason.
Rielly received a pass from Ashley Bolston in the left corner, then let fly with a 15-footer just before the final horn sounded. The ball swished through the net, tying the score and forcing overtime. The Vikings went on to beat the Anteaters 82-72 in OT, with Rielly finishing with a game-high 30 points, 25 of which came in the second half and overtime.
“That’s definitely up there,” Rielly, a graduate of Everett High School, said about where the game-tying shot ranked in her basketball career. “Every player wants to hit the buzzer-beater to win it or tie it. It’s definitely a play I’ll remember from my college career.”
“She was on a mission to get us back in the game, and once we tied it we knew we had it,” Portland State coach Lynn Kennedy said. “It was one of the better second halves I’ve ever seen from a player.”
And the moment symbolized Rielly’s offseason efforts to improve her game, efforts which helped her develop into one of the best players in the Big Sky Conference.
Rielly, a 6-foot junior guard who starred at Everett High from 2010-14, had a good season for the Vikings in 2016-17. As a sophomore coming off a redshirt season after transferring from Santa Clara, Rielly averaged 15.7 points per game and was named third-team All-Big Sky Conference. Considering Rielly scored just 3.6 points per game as a freshman at Santa Clara two years before, many players would have been content with the advances they made.
But not Rielly. Known mostly as a shooter, Rielly decided she needed to make her game more complete.
“After a pretty good season last year I decided to try and add to my game during the offseason to counteract what teams have seen from my play,” Rielly explained. “I wanted to improve on my ball handling and get my turnovers down, and I wanted to have an attacking option other than just taking shots.”
Therefore, Rielly spent the summer working with former University of Washington men’s basketball star Donald Watts at Watts Basketball in Seattle. Watts, who has worked with Rielly since Rielly was in high school, put Rielly through the paces. They worked on footwork and ball positioning so she would be better at keeping her body between the ball and the defender. They worked on two-on-one drills, forcing Rielly to figure out how to dribble out of traps. The goal was to get Rielly to the point where her actions on the court became instinctual instead of requiring thought.
“She’s always been a great scorer,” Watts said. “One of the things she wanted was to be more comfortable with being in the open floor against ball pressure.
“It’s a testament to her that she came to me and said, ‘This is what I want to improve on,’” Watts added. “It wasn’t, ‘This is what my dad wants me to improve on or what my coach wants me to improve on.’ It was, ‘This is what I want to improve on.’ Whenever an athlete comes to me like that, it makes it a lot easier to get there.”
The offseason work has done the trick. Rielly has taken that next step from being a good player for Portland State into being a great one. Through the Vikings’ first 12 games she averaged 20.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 3-pointers per contest. She’s also scoring in a greater variety of ways, including getting to the free-throw line almost twice as often (5.4 attempts per game this season versus 2.9 last season).
“She could always shoot,” Kennedy said. “But if you were looking at the scouting report to see what she could do better, she could do a better job of attacking in the halfcourt. She’s tremendous on the fast break, so she had that and the shooting. But now she has the ability to get to the hoop or knock down the 15-footer, and she’s getting to the line more now. She put a lot of time and effort in during the offseason and it’s showing.”
With Rielly in full flight, and with Bolston (22.8 points per game) back after missing the first eight games of the season recovering from offseason hip surgery, the Vikings have lofty goals. Kennedy, in his third season as coach, has seen his team improve from 4-26 in 2015-16 to 16-17 last season. Saturday’s 74-73 victory over Sacramento State in Portland State’s Big Sky opener improved the Vikings to 7-5, and they believe they can improve upon last year’s run to the Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinals.
“I think team-wise we’ve made a lot of good progress from where we started at the beginning of the year,” Rielly said. “We had a lot of injuries and those players are back now, but it was good to grow as a team and find a rhythm. I think we have all the potential to go to the (NCAA) tournament this year.”
And if the Vikings do, Rielly’s offseason work to improve her game will have played a central role.
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