Catie O'Leary's dream uniform is red-and-white of Bradley not UW
MILWAUKEE When she closed her eyes, this is what Catie O'Leary had dreamed.
After a prep basketball career in which she was the third-leading scorer all-time for Janesville Parker's highly-pedigreed program, why wouldn't O'Leary be dreaming to make the short trip north to play for her state university? What standout athlete from Janesville wouldn't want to be a Wisconsin Badger?
When she wrote a letter to then-UW women's head basketball coach Lisa Stone on April 19, 2009, O'Leary was hoping for a chance to walk-on or fill one of two scholarships that had opened up late with the departure of two players.
Stone gave O'Leary a scholarship.
"This was my dream since I started playing back in grade school," O'Leary told The Gazette upon being offered that scholarship.
More than three years later, O'Leary is standing outside the visitors' locker room on Tuesday night at UW-Milwaukee's Klotsche Center after playing a grueling 43 minutes in her team's tough 116-112 double overtime loss to the Panthers.
Her uniform is a shade of red that looks like it came directly from the Kohl Center laundry. The trimming is white; her favorite number, 22, is white; and the lettering of the team name across the front of her jersey is white, too.
You'd figure it reads WISCONSIN. Instead, it reads BRADLEY.
Turns out that O'Leary's home wasn't a short drive to the north, but rather a longer drive to the south, to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
"It was a long road to get here, but I definitely do feel at home now," said O'Leary said after the Braves were edged by Milwaukee in a wild game, O'Leary's first in her home state—"There's quite a few people from Janesville I saw," she noted—since she transferred from Wisconsin.
So how did O'Leary go from being a Badger to a Brave?
Back in 2009, O'Leary had originally signed with Loyola University of Chicago but decided to leave when then-coach Shannon Reidy resigned under pressure in March. That freed O'Leary to head to Madison, but it turned out that her dream wasn't a comfortable one.
O'Leary played in just five games as a freshman in 2009-10. Her frustration began to grow and her confidence began to wane as she felt like her role wasn't what it should be. She decided to leave Wisconsin after that season.
Though O'Leary isn't vindictive over her time at UW, she did acknowledge on Tuesday that it simply wasn't the right atmosphere for her.
"It was a poor situation," O'Leary said. "Every player can kind of tell how the vibe (is), how the rotations are going on a team. I obviously wasn't seeing time there, and I knew I could play."
The staff at Bradley knew she could play, too, but when the in-state school came calling, O'Leary was as good as gone.
"I know she was recruited by us initially, but when you get any in-state kid that gets offered by their home school, (it's tough to land them)," said first-year Bradley head coach Michael Brooks, who was serving as director of basketball operations in 2009-10.
The Braves recruit actively in Wisconsin and feature three other players on their current roster who hail from the Badger State in addition to O'Leary. Two of them, juniors Kelly Frings of Milwaukee Pius XI and Kelsey Budd of Prairie du Sac, knew O'Leary and wanted her to come to Bradley when she decided to leave Wisconsin.
"You've got Kelly Frings, and you've got Kelsey Budd, who knew (O'Leary) and played with her in AAU ball, and they said that there's a great player available again," Brooks said. "It was one of those kids that we knew who it was, and we wanted to make sure that we got her on our team, because we didn't want to play against her."
It was well worth Bradley's time to keep after O'Leary, whose confidence has soared in her time with the Braves after she sat out her transfer year in 2010-11.
"I'm surrounded by teammates who believe in me, who've put me in that position to lead and trust me," she said. "That's what I'm used to, so I'm definitely in a spot now where I feel more myself, making plays. And having coaches that believe in and trust me makes a huge difference.
"Confidence can change a player."
O'Leary is a well-rounded player whose 5-foot-10 stature at guard allows her to see the floor from angles other guards may miss. Brooks praised O'Leary's basketball acumen, which is evident for a player who led the team in both scoring at 13.9 points per game and rebounding at 8.0 boards per game entering Tuesday.
But O'Leary's greatest asset to the 5-4 Braves is her uncanny ability to not only get to the free-throw line, but to make free throws at an astounding percentage.
Last season, as a redshirt sophomore, O'Leary's 88 made free throws were the third-most ever by a Bradley underclassman. This year, through eight games entering Tuesday, O'Leary was averaging more than seven free-throw attempts per game and shooting 82.5 percent from the line.
Those numbers increased after Tuesday's performance in Milwaukee.
In a display that would impress NBA free-throw legends like Mark Price and Ray Allen, O'Leary went 16-of-16 from the charity stripe. That tied a school record for most made free throws in a game and set a school record for most makes without a miss. It's that ability to draw fouls and make free throws that allowed O'Leary to score 18 points despite a subpar 1-of-10 night from the field.
"All free-throw shooting is is focus and putting in the time," Brooks said. "We've got a great practice facility in our Renaissance Coliseum that's open until midnight, and it's no surprise to see Catie back there."
Bradley has proven to be a great place for O'Leary off the court, too, as she's pursuing a nursing degree and is scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2014.
"Before you even begin to talk about what she does basketball-wise, you have to talk about what a leader, what a mature individual she is, and how she leads by example," Brooks said. "She does such an amazing job academically."
Adds O'Leary: "Everything happens for a reason. Madison was a dream school, like most kids growing up in Wisconsin. But I definitely found a home at Bradley."
O'Leary did reach her dream scenario, after all. She just had to close her eyes twice.