‘The Missing Piece:’ Okaw Valley grad wins National Player of the Year
From tiny Bethany, Illinois (population 1,216), Drury University junior Paige Robinson seemed destined for big things from the outset of her basketball career.
Okay Valley girls basketball coach Brad Ackers saw it from the beginning of her time on the team there. Ackers calls Robinson a gym rat and said he’s not all that surprised by her success.
“Paige’s IQ is off the charts in terms of the game of basketball and her instinct,” Ackers said. “She’s as skilled as any player I’ve ever been around in terms of ball-handling and shooting. That’s been apparent pretty much from the get-go.”
The junior for the NCAA Division II national runner-up Drury Panthers received a phone call recently that may not have shocked her high school coach, but certainly took her aback.
Robinson had been named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Division II National Player of The Year.
“I got a random phone call from my head coach (Amy Eagan),” Robinson said. “Didn’t expect it whatsoever and I started bawling my eyes out. It just proves my hard work paid off.”
Robinson, boasted averages per game of 21.1 points, 4.8 assists, 2 steals and 2.4 3-pointers, and sank 39.6% of her three-point shots this season. Robinson said it was her defense that perhaps had improved the most.
“I was always known as a scorer in high school, and even in my freshman and sophomore year (of college),” Robinson said. “I think I’ve matured as a player and as a person on and off the court.”
The award was handed down just before the Panthers played in the Division II national semifinals in Columbus, Ohio. Robinson had already collected Great Lakes Valley Conference regular season and conference tournament MVP for the Panthers, who went on to fall in the national championship game to defending champs Lubbock Christian 69-59.
When Robinson was being recruited by Drury, while also drawing Division I interest simultaneously, a piece of confidence in Robinson’s abilities from the Drury staff stuck with her. As the 2017-18 Mattoon Journal Gazette & Charleston Times-Courier Player of The Year, Robinson had put many excellent pieces of her game together.
“When I was getting recruited my coach was telling me you’re the missing piece to a national championship and that just really stuck with me,” Robinson said. “That was a huge part in me coming to Drury and I’m glad I’m here.”
Drury was undefeated in 2019-20 before the pandemic brought a premature end to the campaign. Getting as far as Drury has this season, after losing several important seniors from that group, fell largely on the shoulders of the Okaw Valley graduate.
“We had a lot of people thinking we weren’t going to make it as far as we did,” Robinson said. “We had a few seniors graduate. We had a girl before me, Hailey Diestelkamp, she was the national player of the year and everyone thought that since she was leaving and Daejah Bernard was leaving they thought that we weren’t going to make it all the way. So we just used that as a chip on our shoulders and carried that with us throughout the season.”
The Panthers won by single-digits in the national quarterfinals and semifinals in the Greater Columbus Convention Center. That came after a round of 16 home victory over national power Ashland (OH).
The game being played at the convention center is the latest in a line of slights that women’s basketball advocates have highlighted toward the end of this past season most notably.
Robinson said each team at the championship game was allotted 36 tickets apiece, and the game was played in a ballroom.
By comparison, the men’s Division II title game was played at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana, an arena with a seating capacity of 11,000 with seemingly several hundred in attendance (official attendance listed as 1,080).
“I think when people think of D-II, they think of those kids who couldn’t have made it D-I, but a lot of us had D-I offers and we could easily go up to D-I and compete with those kids,” Robinson said. “I think if people watch us, they can see how high of a level we play at and how much we deserve as athletes. It was disappointing like I said to play at an arena like that, but I think if people give us more support, they’ll see why we think we deserve more.”
The Panthers came from behind multiple times in the tournament to get to the final, and even came from down 20 to within four points in the title game.
Robinson, who is currently treating some nagging injuries while entering offseason mode, is already thinking of what it’ll take to elevate things to another level next season for the Panthers.
Not that Robinson isn’t used to playing through trouble. As a high schooler, Robinson fought through what she didn’t know was a torn labrum sustained in Okaw Valley’s conference tournament, and played through the pain to the state semifinals. Ackers also mentioned other injuries Robinson has gutted out.
“She’s a killer,” Achers said. “She just is.”
It takes more than nagging injuries to keep her off the floor.
“We take away It takes a lot of hard work to get there,” Robinson said. “We’re not just going to walk in to the season next year and just expect to get that far. We took a tough loss in the middle of the season, and I think that shaped us into then team we were at the end of the season.”
Next season, Robinson will see how a storybook season fits in the puzzle of the Division II landscape.
“Losing it last year due to COVID and then actually getting all the way this year, it was a huge stride for us,” Robinson said. “Hopefully we’ll be back there next year.