| March 24, 2018

W. Basketball: Back and better than ever

During an afternoon practice in Cowan Spectrum, the Idaho women’s basketball team runs through a series of drills.

Sneakers squeak against the hardwood, players shout to one another and every so often the sound of a whistle pierces the air.

Among the chaos, Brooke Reilly’s hands rise above. She snags the ball on a quick inbound pass and tosses it up for an easy layup. Just by watching her, it becomes clear skills like that do not develop overnight.

For Reilly, basketball called her at a young age.

During eighth grade, she joined the Northwest Blazers, a club team filled with some of the best players in the area.

It was there that Idaho head coach Jon Newlee first noticed Reilly’s potential.

“I first started watching Brooke play while she was a freshman in the club circuit. She played for the Northwest Blazers which is the best club team probably in the United States,” he said.

Newlee was no stranger to the Blazers. Over the years, he developed a strong relationship with the head coach Steve Klees. Newlee worked with Klees, recruiting players like Ali Ford, Christina Salvatore, Sue Winger, Mikayla Ferenz and Karlee Wilson. Even with such an impressive supporting cast, Reilly stood out to Newlee.

“(Klees) told us about Brooke when she was just a freshman, so I followed her since that time and really actively put in the recruiting effort when she was a junior,” Newlee said.

For Reilly, the decision to attend the University of Idaho was easy. Originally from Spokane, Reilly wanted to keep the home-town feeling when she left for college. With Spokane only an hour-and-a-half drive away, Reilly’s parents would have no trouble coming to Moscow to see their daughter play.

However, it was not just her parents that made Reilly’s decision easy. Her friendship with another Blazer helped the transition to Idaho go smoothly.

“I grew up playing club ball with Karlee Wilson,” Reilly said. “Having her here helped a lot, honestly.”

Reilly and Wilson proved to be a deadly combination on the court. During their rookie campaign, they combined for 183 points.

Wilson was not the only former Blazer Reilly connected with. She also found a friend in Salvatore, who is a year older.

“She was the life on our team. Honestly, we were missing her a lot, her leadership role. She lightened up the mood during practice,” Reilly said.

Salvatore graduated from Idaho in 2016. That was the year Reilly faced her toughest challenge yet.

During that season, she began feeling pain in her hamstrings and back. Newlee said the pain was not caused by any singular incident, but developed gradually and unexpectedly.

“She went through all these tests, and finally the MRI showed that she had the problem in her back,” he said. “She was literally fine one day playing hard, and the next day she could barely walk.”

The pain ceased to go away, and Reilly decided to take a redshirt her junior year. She watched from the sidelines as her teammates went on to secure the Big Sky championship and earn a berth into the NCAA tournament.

However, she refused to be disheartened by missing playing time. Instead, Reilly used her time on the sideline as an opportunity to learn. She said seeing the game from her coaches’ view helped her gain a new perspective for the sport.

After returning to the court, Reilly found herself filling a new role. With crucial players like Ford and Salvatore gone, it was up to Reilly and Wilson to fill in the gaps left by their leaders.

“We had that talk before the season. We needed some leadership out on the floor, and I think she’s settling into that role nicely,” Newlee said.

As a redshirt junior with one year of eligibility left, Reilly said she wants to finish two business degrees while playing for the Silver and Gold. Though her time with her teammates is limited, she said she will cherish every moment they have left together.

“It’s really like a family-oriented team,” she said. “It’s like a family away from home.”

Brandon Hill can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @brandonmtnhill

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