Stephanie Karcz has paid a price for leading all NCAA Division I women’s basketball players in steals per game.
The thumb on the Loyola Maryland senior guard’s left hand is swollen and bruised. The other four fingers are in varying degrees of pain and have made it difficult for her to grip her toothbrush or pen, which is problematic since Karcz is left-handed.
“They’re all jammed,” she said recently. “It’s just one big jam. When I’m in, I don’t really think about it. I just kind of play through it. We don’t have the ability to have another guard out. So it’s just something that I deal with and suck it up.”
Karcz’s tolerance for pain has been a boon for a Greyhounds team that is 3-9 overall and 0-1 in the Patriot League and is missing six players, including three starters, because of injury. And that appeared to increase to seven players and four starters after senior point guard Alexis Gray suffered an apparent concussion in the third quarter of a 64-56 loss to Holy Cross on Jan. 2 at Reitz Arena.
So Karcz’s presence on the court is especially important to her teammates.
“She gives us energy,” senior guard Hannah Niles said. “She’s our motor. She makes us go. When she’s off the court, we can definitely feel a difference.”
Loyola Maryland relies heavily on the 5-foot-11 Karcz (pronounced CARS), the 2018 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. This season, she leads the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game, rebounding at 9.2, steals at 6.7, assists at 4.2 and playing time at 32.2 minutes.
For her career, Karcz’s 1,067 points are tied for 15th in program history with Mary Ella Franz. She ranks fourth in rebounds at 909 and could become the fourth player in school history to compile 1,000 points and rebounds. She ranks seventh in assists at 336 and has registered three of the school’s four triple doubles.
But it is in the department of steals where Karcz is unrivaled as her 391 are a decisive school record (runner-up Katie Sheahin totaled 347 steals from 2009 to 2013). Only one other player this season has averaged at least four steals (Norfolk State redshirt senior guard Chanette Hicks is at 5.1), and Karcz’s seven steals against the Crusaders gave her 10 consecutive games of six or more.
Holy Cross coach Ann McInerney said no one in her team’s league and nonconference schedule plays harder than Karcz.
“She’s so tough,” McInerney said. “Makes such an impact on the defensive side of the ball and is a tough matchup for us on the offensive side. She’s so strong around the basket that we try to match up a post with her, but then she is on the perimeter. So we need to match a guard against us. Definitely a key in our game plan and she still manages to get the job done.”
Karcz hesitated at talking about her nation-leading numbers.
“I’m not one to really focus on stats,” she said. “So the fact that I am, it’s just like, you just go with it. But it’s not just me. My teammates help me get them, too, and in practice, that’s where it all starts. But just in the games, it’s second nature at this point. It’s not something I think about. But the fact that I am leading, that’s pretty cool, too.”
While pointing out that Karcz is blessed with her father Steven Karcz’s strong hands and her mother Virginia Cunningham’s intelligence, Greyhounds coach Joe Logan said Karcz’s penchant for hounding opposing dribblers has convinced him to direct the rest of her teammates to play more defense up the court in case Karcz pokes the ball away.
“It’s a risk-reward give-and-take, but most times, the reward is greater than the risk, and I think we’ve gotten better at it over the years,” he said. “I think she’s gotten better at recovering out of it. There are things fundamentally basketball-wise on defense that she doesn’t necessarily do. So your natural reaction as a coach when you see those things is, ‘No, no, no,’ but then it worked out. So you certainly have to give her a little more leeway as far as going for steals.”
Karcz said she has long prided herself on her ability to play defense.
“I have always been a defensive player more than I’ve been an offensive one,” she said. “At the same time, my defense turns into offense a lot of times. My steals can bring me layups on the other end. That kind of gets me going. I like defense. I know that everyone focuses on points and that defense is kind of under the radar. So it helps a lot for me to get my little cheap baskets from steals.”
Niles said Karcz is so unrelenting in practice that she has taken to calling Karcz “Magnet Hands” for the uncanny way she gets into passing lanes.
“She just has that innate athletic instinct,” Niles said. “She’s a risky player, but she’s OK with taking those risks whereas some of us may rely more on our fundamentals. She uses her athleticism to her strength and goes for those risks, and most of the time, she capitalizes on them. If not, we have to be there. But her instincts are ridiculous.”
Karcz acknowledged there are times when she is perhaps too aggressive. During the fourth quarter of an eventual 64-48 win against Monmouth on Dec. 20, she dove for a loose ball at halfcourt with the Greyhounds leading by 15 points, drawing a light chiding from Niles.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to do that. We’re up by 20, the game is almost over,’” Karcz said with a smile. “But it’s just something that comes naturally. If I see it, I’m going to try to get it. They get a little nervous at times, but at this point, they know that if the ball is there, I’m probably going to be on the floor at some point.”
That attitude is what Logan said he will miss the most when the season ends.
“Every coach that comes to a game says, ‘Man, she plays hard. You should make a clip tape of her, and that’s how hard you have to play,’” he said. “She’s a throwback player. People remember how you made them feel, and I think she intimidates other teams being out there. I think she energizes our team. It’s going to be tough on Senior Night to see her go off.”