LEBANON — On the court or off, Edwardsville High graduate Mary O'Keefe has no second-guesses about her decision to play basketball at Division II Southern Indiana in Evansville.
O'Keefe, a 6-foot sophomore, is using that self-assurance as a foundation to reaching her goal with the Screaming Eagles.
"One of my main problems is being consistent," O'Keefe said. "I've been trying to work on that. The pace of the (college) game is so much quicker. That shot clock puts a lot of pressure on you and you've got to be more aware of things going on around you. So it's a big change from high school."
O'Keefe has met the challenges head-on. She's averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, and her 38 assists rank third on the team. She has scored in double figures in five of her last six games, including a career-high 26 points Thursday against Lewis when she was 12-for-16 from the field.
Southern Indiana coach Rick Stein isn't surprised.
"The thing about Mary is she has continued to improve every day she's been here," said Stein, whose team is 16-5 overall and 8-5 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. "She works so hard at it. She puts extra time in. She'll be in the gym getting up extra shots. You can see her spending time on her game.
"So when you get kids like that, that dedication is going to show up. It has all year with Mary, no question about it. She's having a great year. She's playing great basketball right now, but I think her best basketball's still ahead of her. And she'll get there because she works so hard at it. It's what she wants."
O'Keefe, the daughter of Dan and Lee Ann O'Keefe, is shooting 53 percent from the field (78-for-147) despite being defended by the best post players she's ever opposed.
"Especially in the GLVC, it's ridiculous," said O'Keefe, a biology major. "Everybody is strong, fit, tough on every single team. It's a big difference (from high school)."
Stein said O'Keefe's strength, footwork and soft hands make her a threat against any opposing post player in the GLVC, long considered the best Division II league in the country.
"I always thought she was a great passer; that high-post area was a real comfort zone for her," Stein said. "But she's learned how to go down on the low blocks and step up to the short corner. She's expanded her overall game, especially on the offensive end.
"She can take players down into the low post and make things happen down there that when she got here last year, I don't think she could do. She's given herself the ability to make plays in a lot of different ways now."
O'Keefe doesn't hurt herself at the free-throw line, either. She's attempted 63 foul shots, ranking third on the team. She's made 48, good for 76 percent.
Stein said O'Keefe impacts her team in ways often credited to a ballhandler and passer.
"She's probably one of the smartest players I've ever coached," Stein said. "She's got such a good feel for the game. She seems to know what's going to happen before it might happen. It kind of sounds a little weird, I guess, but she's got a knack for what should be going on, what should be happening next.
"Because of that, she makes everybody around her better. You don't hear that (said) a lot about inside players. You hear that a lot about guards or point guards or wing players. Mary has that. And not just on one end, but both ends of the court."
Stein said his team's guards like feeding O'Keefe in the post.
"If the ball's around her, she's going to get it," Stein said. "As a guard, when you're throwing a pass into the post, one of the things you want to make sure is it's not going to be a turnover. With Mary, they understand that if it's in the vicinity of her, she's going to get a catch on it."
O'Keefe started 23 of 26 games last season and averaged eight points and 3.4 rebounds as a true freshman. The Screaming Eagles struggled, finishing 9-17 overall and 3-15 in the league.
Losing wasn't something with which O'Keefe was accustomed. Under head coach Lori Blade and assistant Donna Farley at Edwardsville, the Tigers lost 12 games in four years.
"Last year, we had a little rough patch," O'Keefe said. "We had nine new players, so a lot of the ones that are here this year are in their second year. You can see how much our team has grown and elevated itself from last year to this year.
"Our team chemistry is amazing. We have no seniors, so we're not going to lose anybody. That's what we're most excited about. We still have a lot of games left and we're taking it one day at a time."
Stein said it's evident that O'Keefe received solid coaching at the prep level, and it was one of the intangibles that made O'Keefe an attractive option for Southern Indiana.
"She comes from a good program, a well-coached program that's obviously had a lot of success," Stein said. "We're always trying to bring in players that have been part of good programs, have been well-coached and have been part of teams that have played for championships."
Blade and Farley were in the stands Feb. 2 when the Screaming Eagles defeated McKendree University 73-63 in Lebanon. O'Keefe, who had 12 points and eight rebounds in the win, visited with her former coaches after the game.
"They got me ready to play at this level --with the intensity we had in high school," O'Keefe said. "It was great. I miss them. I played for them since I was a freshman in high school, all four years. They basically taught me most of everything I know out on the court."
O'Keefe said Stein has been an extension of Blade and Farley.
"He's great," O'Keefe said. "His coaching style is pretty close to how Coach Blade and Coach Farley coached me. I'm used to it, so I think that was good to get into. He's a great coach. Even the assistant coaches are helpful and everything.
"The decision I made to come here was probably one of the best I've made."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.