Pac-10 Women's Basketball: Column 2
Dec. 13, 2006
By Dick Rockne
The momentum generated by having 11 teams reach at least the second rounds of the past two NCAA women's basketball tournaments has ebbed some for the Pacific-10 Conference so far this season.
A week before the start of the Conference schedule, the Pac-10 had a 53-31 record against rivals from 24 other leagues. The non-conference winning percentage of 63.1 is commendable, but not up to the 71.3 of last season, when six member teams - five at-large selections and league tournament champion UCLA - eventually competed in the NCAA showdown.
What happened? Upgraded schedules, one of the RPI keys to unlocking the at-large selection door into the NCAA tournament, might have taken a toll. UCLA has played (and lost to) national powers Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and New Mexico while learning how to play without all-Pac-10 players Nikki Blue and Lisa Willis, who graduated.
Like it or not, injuries, too, have been responsible for having a negative influence on the development of some teams, none more so than USC. Coach Mark Trakh said three players - Camille LeNoir (hip), Jacki Gemelos (ACL surgery) and Brynn Cameron (baby) - are redshirting for sure and two others - Markisha Lea (knee) and Aarika Hughes (foot) - might. Simone Jelks (knee) and Jamie Funn (hip) are due to return.
'I've been pretty happy,'' said Trakh, whose Women of Troy split their first eight games. 'We've been in every game despite missing all those people. That's all we can do. We've got to worry about who's out there and not who's not out there because most of the kids are not going to be back.
'So it is what it is. It's disappointing because we could have been really good.'
Other players of prominence affected by injuries include California's Alexis Gray-Lawon (knee) and Devanei Hampton (ankle); Arizona's Beatrice Bofia (ACL, out for season) and Rheya Neabors (stress reaction in a foot); Washington State's Kate Benz (back), who led the Pac-10 in rebounding last season; three Washington starters -- Dominique Banks (surgery on both legs), Andrea Plouffe (knees) and all-Pac-10 Cameo Hicks (knee) and Stanford's Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (ACL).
Following is a look at what else is happening as the Pac-10 women embark on the 18-game Conference season grind leading up to the Pac-10 tournament March 2-5 in San Jose, Calif.
The Sun Devils, who have followed their coaches' dictates in establishing a reputation for playing hard-nosed defense, have added a new element - offense - to their repertoire. After nine games (8-1) they were leading the Pac-10 in scoring by nearly a five-point margin over runnerup California.
'I think we're better on offense that on defense this year,'' coach Charli Turner Thorne said. 'It's fun. We have a different look. We are a different team. We are able to score better than I've ever coached. Hopefully, we can sustain it.'
Back in action for ASU is senior Aubree Johnson, whose 15-year-old brother, Jordan, died last month in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, while with his family to watch the Sun Devils play in a tournament. Jordan was diagnosed with an enlarged heart.
'Obviously, it's been hard for Aubree,'' Turner Thorne said. 'It's just going to be a long process for her in terms of grieving and getting to really enjoying life. I think it's made us closer as a team.'
Coach Joan Bonvicini said that before the season she was concerned about two things: introducing new post players to the rigors of Division I basketball and a schedule that included some tough road games, including one at defending national champion Maryland.
'Unfortunately, both (concerns) have been true,'' Bonvicini said.
The development of an inside game has been slowed by the season-ending knee injury suffered by 6-foot-7 Beatrice Bofia and the foot injury suffered by Rhea Neabors.
'Our backcourt has been pretty solid,' Bonvicini said, 'and that's because we have some returnees there. We need to be more consistent in the frontcourt.'
Consistency was a factor mentioned repeatedly by coach Sherri Murrell in describing her team's biggest problem.
'We start two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior so right now we're just inconsistent each game,' Murrell said. 'Turnovers have been a problem. Our freshmen point guards are talented, but at the same time are very inconsistent.'
The back injury being endured by Benz, who in past seasons has been a pillar of consistency, has resulted in her not being as consistent, Murrell said.
'There is only one way Kate Benz plays and that's extremely hard,' Murrell said. 'There have been games where she went all out and the next day she couldn't even walk. But she's getting to where she's a little more consistent with back-to-back practices.'
Coach June Daugherty said that with improved health the team is improving 'all the way around. We're pleased with the progress we've been able to make.'
The Huskies' turnaround began, ironically, with a loss - by five points - to powerful Ohio State at Columbus. After that they beat Texas A&M, No. 15 at the time, and Nevada.
The key player has been Hicks who, while continuing to recover from a bone bruise in her right knee, averaged team highs of 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in the victories over Texas A&M and Nevada.
Senior guard Shay Murphy and senior center Chloe Kerr have kept the ailing Women of Troy above water.
As of Dec. 12, Murphy was third in the league in scoring average (19.9 points per game), second in rebounding (9.3), first in free-throw percentage (93.5), third in steals (2.63), first in three-point field goals made (22), third in offensive rebounds (3.38) and third in defensive rebounds (5.88).
The numbers are reasons enough for Trakh to say that Murphy is worthy of being considered one of the country's top 15 players.
'On defense we put her on the opponent's best player,' Trakh said.
Kerr has provided and inside complement to Murphy with averages of 14.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and a league-best 2.63 blocks.
Noelle Quinn, who spent the first three years of her career sharing the Bruin spotlight with Niki Blue and Lisa Willis, is thriving on her own this season, according to her coach, Kathy Olivier.
'She's just doing so many more things,' Olivier said. 'Early in the season it was very difficult for her to get adjusted but she just keeps getting better and better. I didn't think Noelle Quinn could get better, but she has.'
A strong second option for UCLA has been junior forward Lindsey Pluimer, who was averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds after 11 games.
Casey Nash, a 6-1 senior who began the season with a career scoring average of 6.3 points per game, was leading the Pac-10 after five games with a 22.0 average.
'If you look at our roster you'll see that she is the only player we have back with significant game experience and minutes played and just being around the Pac-10,' coach LaVonda Wagner said. 'So we've been in a situation where we've had to look to her quite a bit until these other young women can figure out what we're doing.'
Defense had a lot to do with the Ducks winning six of the their first seven games. Their opponents averaged just 52.7 points per game while shooting .337 overall and .265 from three-point range.
'We have five seniors who understand the defensive philosophy,' coach Bev Smith said.
Offensively, a surprise performer has been Jessie Shetters, a 6-6 senior who began the season with a career scoring average of 2.6. After seven games this season she was averaging 7.0 points and 9.0 rebounds.
'She's just a different player altogether,' Smith said. 'I'm pleased for her and for our team that we have an inside presence in the offensive and defensive paint.'
Coach Tara VanDerveer once proclaimed that her teams 'can't shoot enough three-pointers.' For now, at least, her belief has been put on hold as the Cardinal has struggled from beyond the three-point line.
VanDerveer's unsettling situation at point guard, where the search for a consistent replacement for Gold-Onwude is on-going, has contributed to the lack of three-point consistency. As has a lack of shooting opportunities during practices at Maples Pavilion.
VanDerveer said that for a month the gym was set up for volleyball, meaning extra hoops weren't available for shooting practice.
'Our kids really need a lot of repetitions,' VanDerveer said.
With the gym restored for basketball, more opportunities are available.
'Once we get into more of a routine in our building and we're shooting more and once kids understand what a good shot is I think we'll be fine on the perimeter,' the coach added.
Whatever slack was created by the ankle sprain suffered by Hampton has been absorbed by Ashley Walker, a versatile 6-1 sophomore who was named Pac-10 player of the week twice in the first four weeks.
She received the second honor for what she did in leading the Bears to victories over Fresno State and at Kansas: averages of 24.9 points and 12.5 rebounds.
'She's just kind of grown a lot since last year,' coach Joanne Boyle said. 'She understands that she's had to take on so much more since Devenai has been out. It's not affecting her. It's not pressured her. She's really wanting the ball and doing what she does and doing it well right now.'