An Engaging Force

Nov. 27, 2001

by Gina Gray

Imagine scoring 27 points against top-ranked Connecticut, tallying 14 more in the NCAA Elite Eight, and finishing as the fourth-leading rebounder on the Husky squad to conclude your sophomore year. Does it get much better than that? Some would think there is no possible way, but for Kellie O'Neill, it sure does.

Adding to the excitement of the Huskies phenomenal season last year, O'Neill began her junior year with a bang. Coming off a stellar second season in which she saw time in all 32 games and averaged 4.8 rebounds, she is anxious for this season to begin. This year, O'Neill returns to the floor with more than just heightened goals, she returns with a fiancee. That's right, Kellie O'Neill is engaged.

'In high school I didn't really have balance,' she says. 'Basketball was everything and if I lost a game it was the end of the world. Now it is still a huge part of my life and an enormous priority, but I have balance. It is nice to be able to go home and have somebody there to share my day with, and it's nice to have balance.'

The ability of O'Neill to achieve that balance has helped her improve her game.

'The balance I have found has definitely helped me in basketball,' she explains. 'This summer I had a long talk with the coaches on how to not stress out so much about basketball. I have always freaked out about Monday practices. Being able to leave things on the court and not put so much pressure and stress on myself has helped me relax on the floor.'

The results are already starting to show. In the Huskies' second exhibition game of the season, O'Neill played 23 minutes, shot 60 percent from the floor (including 2-for-3 from the three point line) and scored a total of 18 points, adding three rebounds.

Perhaps as a result of O'Neill's inner peace, she is setting higher goals for herself and the team. Coming off a remarkable season last year, she knows the team is capable of making it back to the Elite Eight, and farther. At the least, she expects the team to defend its Pac-10 championship.

'Obviously, we want to do better than we did last year, which would be the Final Four,' she says. 'For the first time we actually know that it can happen, to make it to the Elite Eight and beyond. It's kinda cool. It creates a good feeling at practice to know that we're not fighting for something that's so far away. People who were here for last year's team know that this year's team is different.'

The loss of six seniors from the 2000-01 squad that went 22-10 leaves some doubting the Huskies' ability to repeat, but O'Neill claims that the team taking the floor this season is just as strong.

'The team is much closer this year,' she says. 'We don't have six seniors, but the people that are upperclassmen are all experienced and know what winning is all about. They are very talented and are going to pick up right where last year's team finished. We have a balanced attack, so no matter who comes off the bench or who starts, we still come at teams. I think we are going to be much better.'

On top of her team goals, O'Neill also has individual goals for the 2001-02 season. She realizes her role has dramatically changed from last year, due in part to her experience, and will require her to adapt in her new role as a leader. O'Neill has never been very vocal on the basketball court, but is aware that she will need to be in order to support the younger players on the team.

'I have never been very vocal but this year I have taken on more of leadership role on the floor. I am usually totally quiet on the floor and my first year I didn't say anything. I might have said about two words on the court and used to get yelled at all the time. Last year I started to be a little more vocal and emerged from my shell. This year things just clicked. Being a leader gives me confidence because I know what I am doing out on the court.'

Besides accepting a mantle of leadership, O'Neill envisions herself fulfilling a similar role to last year in her style of play. Her experience and knowledge of the Huskies' system will aid her in developing her perimeter game.

'I am not a scorer, I just get down and dirty and do the little things,' she says. 'I'm the banger down low, somebody who cleans up points off of the boards. I have had two years of experience knowing the system, and that gives me more freedom to put the ball on the court a couple of times. I have more confidence out on the perimeter because of my knowledge of the system during the past two years.'

Sixth-year head coach June Daugherty comments that O'Neill's strengths are her ability to play hard and her intensity on the floor.

'Kellie is a strong, athletic post player who can really mix it up and has worked hard to develop her outside game to complement a very good inside game,' she says. 'She is capable of scoring big numbers in both areas. Kellie also takes a great deal of pride in her defense and rebounding.'

This year there will be one more O'Neill added to the Husky attack, with Kellie's sister Kristin joining the squad as a freshman. The two played together in high school, and have developed a sisterly bond on the basketball court.

'It is really awesome playing with Kristin and it's going to be really cool once games start,' the elder O'Neill says. 'It has been a bit of an adjustment for her, learning that her older sister does have experience and does know what she's talking about sometimes. We are very competitive with each other, and it's been a bit of change on that front, but we're there for each other and it is going to be fun.

'In high school, if things weren't going well with the team, we would just give each other a look and we'd play the 'high-low' game with each other,' she continues. 'This year's team is very talented now and we can't just play two on five on the court. However, we definitely have a connection.'

So, if you thought scoring 27 points against the number one team in nation, averaging 4.8 boards during the 2000-2001 basketball season, and scoring 14 points during the Elite Eight game was as good as it could get, you were wrong. For Husky forward Kellie O'Neill, her junior year practically sparkles with expectation.

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