By John Bohnenkamp
There is an artistry, and certainly annoyance for opposing teams, at the way Grace Gilmore draws offensive fouls.
It is not an official NCAA statistic, but Western Illinois coach JD Gravina figures Gilmore, a senior guard, leads the nation in charges taken.
It’s something that’s become a big part of her game.
“It definitely frustrates a lot of teams — the players and coaches definitely get frustrated with it,” Gilmore said. “And I just say, if I was doing it for your team, you would like it. If I’m doing it against you, you wouldn’t.”
“It’s been big for us,” Gravina said. “It’s game-changing to the other teams’ best players, because it changes their mentality, sometimes it gets them into foul trouble. It’s really a huge thing for us.”
There has been a steady progression to Gilmore’s career. She is having her best statistical season, averaging 13.3 points as the Leathernecks head into this weekend’s Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. She is averaging 21.2 points over her last five games, including a career-high 46 points in the Feb. 6 game at Omaha.
Gilmore played just 169 minutes in 22 games as a freshman, but Gravina remembered her as one of the loudest players on the bench. Now, in the last three seasons, she has started all 82 games she’s played.
“It makes me excited, for her, that she’s been able to take that step and play significant minutes for three years after she didn’t play,” Gravina said.
“I think the biggest part of that has been my mental game,” Gilmore said. “I’ve been working on it a ton this preseason, this fall, and this season. I started meeting with our sports psychologist this year. Because I get super-anxious for games, and I want to do well. And that’s been a struggle for me, I think, why I haven’t played that well in the last couple of years. I think that’s definitely been the biggest thing that has helped me this season.”
And Gilmore has done that while taking a beating with all of those offensive fouls she’s drawn.
“Her body has taken a toll, with all of the minutes she’s played and the charges she’s taken, as hard as she plays and as physical as she plays,” Gravina said. “I like to tease her — some days we’ll be getting ready for practice and she’ll be having this spa day with the trainer. They’re stretching this, they’re massaging this, they’re taping this.”
It’s a mastery Gilmore acquired while playing at Arrowhead High School in Heartland, Wis.
“It can change how a player plays, when you take one or two of them and they’re in foul trouble, and they know they can’t get to the rim as easily as they might usually,” Gilmore said.
“I think one thing she does is anticipate the opportunities to take charges really well,” Gravina said. “It’s not necessarily a reaction for her. She almost has an instinct and a feel for when they’re going to take off and attack. She reads body language well, maybe not consciously, but subconsciously. She anticipates the opportunity to step in front, get balanced, and take the contact.
“She did it in high school, she did it in AAU. It’s something we noticed about her. It’s just like a skill she’s developed over time. I think a lot of it is just the way she anticipates what the offensive player is going to do, maybe even before they know what they’re going to do.”
Gravina also appreciates Gilmore’s personality, and the quirks that go with it.
“I’m sure Gravina told you how much I eat,” Gilmore said.
“I’ll be giving this big pump-up speech, all this motivation, and she’s over there snacking on something,” Gravina said. “Like, shoving granola into her mouth.”
“I think on my (recruiting) visit I had two Jimmy Johns’ subs,” Gilmore said. “And they were like, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Gilmore’s time at Western Illinois is running out. This weekend is all-or-nothing for the Leathernecks, who are 7-15 in overall. Win three games in three days — Western Illinois, the No. 5 seed, opens against No. 4 seed Kansas City on Sunday — and the Leathernecks will get the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. One loss ends the season.
Gilmore went down the list of everything it has meant for her to be a Leatherneck — the connections to her teammates, the university, the community.
Saying goodbye is something she doesn’t want to think about.
“It will be a mix of emotions,” Gilmore said.
Photo: Western Illinois’ Grace Gilmore drives to the basket in a game against Iowa earlier this season. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)