Chrissi Ekhomu made it clear. She loved playing basketball at University of St. Francis for her first three college seasons.
However, if the 5-foot-5 senior guard returned to the Joliet campus for her senior year, there would be a huge something missing – her coach, Samantha Quigley Smith, who brought former USF assistants Dan McCarthy and Michael Delrose with her to Romeoville. Charnelle Reed, the Saints' scoring leader the last two seasons, also is an assistant for Quigley Smith.
"I signed up to play with Sam Quigley," Ekhomu said Tuesday night after finishing with 10 points and two assists in helping Quigley Smith's Flyers knock off the Saints, their former team, 59-46, at the Sullivan Center on the USF campus.
"From freshman year, she really helped me develop. I enjoyed my time here [at USF]. These girls here will be my friends for life. But I wanted to accept the challenge of playing a year at Lewis."
The Flyers improved to 6-3 while dropping the Saints to 7-3 and ending their seven-game win streak. St. Francis beat Lewis last season, 80-69, so the former Saints brigade has been on the winning side of the neighborhood rivalry for two straight years.
Some observers wonder if Ekhomu made the proper move leaving St. Francis, which plays in the NAIA, and moving to an NCAA Division II program that has been successful year after year. That meant she was eligible to play at Lewis right away, and the way she sees it, the positives are evident.
"I bonded with these girls right away," she said. "They're great. They welcomed me from the start.
"I have learned that I have to take a back seat at times. I'm coming off the bench. That's been the biggest transition, from always having the ball in my hands, now anybody on the team can push it. We have other girls who can handle the ball like Gabby [Green] and Tierney [Lockett]. I try to be wherever Sam needs me. That's helping make the transition a smoother one."
A stable of ballhandlers is an important element in the Flyers' master plan. Much of the scoring comes from the inside forces, specifically 6-foot junior forward Jessica Kelliher and 5-11 sophomore forward Rachel Hinders. Kelliher was averaging 25.9 points and Hinders 14.5 entering Tuesday's game, when they combined for 31 points and 26 rebounds. Get them the ball in scoring position and good things happen.
Quigley Smith said after she accepted the position at Lewis, she left Ekhomu's decision on whether to transfer and join the Flyers' guard mix up to her.
"She would have been great in either place," she said. "If anything, I pushed her a little toward staying here [at USF]. But we have had a great relationship the last four-plus years, and with the Ekhomu family as a whole."
Ekhomu arrived at St. Francis after a solid four-year career at Joliet Catholic Academy, where her younger sister Nicole was all-everything. Nicole now is a sophomore guard at Florida State, which is among the best NCAA Division I women's programs in the nation.
Quigley Smith and her sister Allie both were ballyhooed during their careers at JCA and then at DePaul.
"Coming from Joliet Catholic, I always heard about the Quigley sisters and felt like I was playing in Sam's shadow, which was pretty long," Chrissi Ekhomu said. "Then when I got to know her, I found out why that was. She was that good and is that good as a coach."
Ekhomu said she likes the way Quigley Smith treats her on and off the court.
Ekhomu made a mistake in Tuesday's game, and Quigley Smith sent in a substitute. The two talked for an extended time, while the game continued, as the coach detailed the problem to her protege.
"I had messed up a help assignment," Ekhomu explained. "That's one thing about Sam, she never has shown any favoritism toward me at any time. If anything, she's tougher on me. That's because she knows what I can do and wants to get it out of me."
Yes, Ekhomu signed up to play for Quigley Smith as long as possible. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to further their relationship during her senior season.
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.