DeKALB – Northern Illinois post Renee Sladek started last season watching from the sidelines on crutches due to season-ending knee surgery.
Last week, the redshirt sophomore was helping the Huskies to their first trip to the Mid-American Conference Championship.
Sladek emerged as a scoring threat off the bench during the MAC Tournament. She and the Huskies will face off against South Dakota State at 7 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the Women's National Invitational Tournament.
"I'm starting to finally get back to the point where I'm comfortable with everything," Sladek said. "The season's been a little complicated with some pain. Some days are worse than others with pain, but I'm getting to where I'm really comfortable and the pain's really settled down.
"You're going to doubt yourself when you have pain, but I don't think I really lacked confidence in my knee. My game took a while. I think my game is finally coming around."
On the season, Sladek is averaging 4.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in 16.1 minutes of 31 games – including nine starts. However, she cranked up the scoring during the MAC Tournament – averaging 10.3 points in 21 minutes.
"She had a great MAC tournament and you saw her play on the offensive end with a lot of confidence," Northern Illinois coach Lisa Carlsen said. "Maybe she felt like she had to take a backseat to all the scorers that were around her. She'll allude to that sometimes – 'my job is not to score the basketball.' She's always been somebody who gives us a really good spark off the bench. She'll bust it and she kind of found her niche."
In the Huskies' 72-71 win over No. 5 seed Ohio in the quarterfinals, Northern Illinois erased a 22-point deficit for the biggest comeback in program history. Sladek finished with 12 points and was a perfect 5 for 5 shooting.
In the 82-71 loss to Toledo in the championship, Sladek tied a career-high with 15 points on 6 for 11 shooting in 27 minutes. Sladek was an offensive weapon for the Huskies, especially shooting a 15-foot baseline jumper during the MAC Tournament.
"That's where I sort of sit in our offense," Sladek said. "I'm not a guard, so I'm not flying all over the place. We work every day on those shots and when you play with somebody like Ally (Lehman, the team's leading scorer), people are always double-teaming her so that leaves me wide open. I get lucky in a sense and I knocked them down."
With a potential trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line in the conference tournament, Sladek scored in double figures twice – something she did twice in the regular season.
"I knew Renee could play like that all year and I was just waiting for her to have her breakthrough game and I think the MAC Tournament was definitely that," said Northern Illinois senior Cassidy Glenn, who is averaging 14.2 points per game. "It showed that next year she can do it every game. She's capable of doing that every game."
She got plenty of playing time before the knee surgery, starting in 27 games as a freshman in 2014-15 under former coach Kathi Bennett's more defensive-minded program. After sitting out and recovering from the knee surgery, she watched as the Huskies transformed to the fast-paced philosophy under Carlsen.
"I was glad I had a year to just observe, trying to see what she expected of players," Sladek said. "I think that year of observing really helped me out, but definitely the running scared me a little bit."
Now, Sladek and the Huskies (21-11) are playing in the their first postseason since the 1994-95 season and put together the most wins in a season since 1993-94. With that, the expectations of winning have become a welcomed sight, Sladek said.
"Pretty much every year that I've been here, people have doubted us," Sladek said. "We haven't really been on the rise since I was born, so ever since coach (Carlsen) got here, she just got us to believe and to work every day and prove people wrong.
"It's crazy how fast it switches because when you're winning and you lose one game, people are like, 'What happened?' Two years ago, if we would have won a single game in the MAC they would have gone crazy, but now when we lose a game in the MAC people freak out. It's a great place to be."