Tournament: Women's Team-by-team Previews
by Lara Boyko
Stanford: Dominating Force
When a team has recorded 55 straight Pac-10 conference games and 21 straight wins with an average win margin of 30.5 points, there may be only one way to describe them - dominating.
"We're rested, excited, working hard and looking forward to the tournament," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
Stanford made headlines early on in the season when they upset then-ranked No. 1 seed Connecticut and snapped their 90-game win streak. During the Pac-10 schedule they continued to impress by winning the Pac-10 regular conference title for the 20th time and 11th in a row.
Helping Stanford continue to be a dominating force in the Pac-10 and on the West Coast is a balanced effort.
"We are going with almost 10 people who can help us find good combinations of players out there and we are good to go," said VanDerveer, who is now in her 25th season at Stanford.
Contributing to this flexible line-up includes 6-foot senior guard Jeanette Pohlen (fourth in the Pac-10 in scoring with 15.8 points per game, 6-foot-2 junior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike (team-best 15.8 points per game) and 6-foot-4 senior guard/forward Kayla Pedersen (team-leading eight rebounds per game).
"First and foremost Pohlen has really improved," said VanDerveer. "She comes to practice, practices hard every day. She is still working on a lot, but she has come a long way with her leadership and ability to run an offense. We're excited about how she is doing."
"Ogumike is ready for a breakout tournament. She has been playing well and practicing hard. Pedersen is versatile and helping us in all aspects of the game."
Stanford will start the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament on Friday at the Staples Center after receiving a double-bye as the first-seed.
"The one thing that is different is playing in a new facility," said VanDerveer. "It might be a disadvantage for a team that plays two games in one facility and then has to move into a new one. Moving (straight) into a new arena and playing in the Staples Center is a great situation for us."
UCLA: Sticking Together
Whether it was planned or the free will of the players, last summer the second-seed UCLA (26-3, 16-2 Pac-10) put the future in motion by deciding to stick together during the off-season.
"I think there was an ah-ha moment when they decided to stay here during the off-season and workout," said UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell who is now in her third season at UCLA. "There have been ah-ha moments when our upperclassmen have reached out to our first years and there have been different ah-ha moments leading up to the season. I think that a big reason for why we have been as successful as we have been so quickly is due to our team cohesion. We haven't had to police or monitor that side of the game. For me that is one less thing to worry about compared to my first two years here. This has been a big difference as well."
This collective decision enabled the No. 9-ranked Bruins to finish the pre-conference season with a 10-1 record. Once the conference schedule started, UCLA continued to play with cohesion and only suffered losses to long-time west coast powerhouse, Stanford.
"In the offseason we talked about positioning ourselves to be one of the best teams in our conference and the country," said Caldwell. "We didn't just want to settle for going to the tournament last year. We wanted to make sure that we were more competitive, that we had people who had different weapons for us offensively and were competitive on both ends of the floor. It's been about being better than who we were last year and they have done that. They have shown that they can win on the road, we've had a great non-conference schedule with only one loss and our only other loss has been to Stanford, the number two team in the country. They've done what I asked them to."
A few of the shining stars from the UCLA Bruins this year have been 6-foot-1 junior guard Rebekah Gardner (sixth on the team in scoring with 8.1 ppg), 6-foot junior forward Jasmine Dixon (13th in the Pac-10 in scoring with 12.2 ppg) and 5-foot-8 senior guard Darxia Morris (tied for 9th in the Pac-10 in steals with 1.93).
"Gardner is injured and we haven't been running her in practice so all she has been doing is playing in games," described Caldwell. "She knows the scouting reports, is keeping herself in shape by doing non-weight bearing exercises, but mentally she is into practices so by game time, for a kid who is not on the floor going through practices, she has been a huge plus for us coming off the bench."
"Dixon can have not-great games and still put up numbers. She has been the most consistent for us. Morris is someone who gives us that instant offense from the perimeter."
Even with their talent and ability to play as a team, coach Caldwell knows that it will take more than this to get through their first game in Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament on Friday.
"We need to fine tune staying true to our game plan," said Caldwell. "Sometimes we deviate from it whether it is that on defense we over-extend our match-ups or sometimes we lose focus on personnel. Whether they are a three-point shooter or a penetrator, I think we have lost focus in some instances there. The other thing that has been a challenge for us and can be an Achilles' Heel is that we have been consistently inconsistent. We never know who is going to step up with having a double-double game or have the hot hand, but we have multiple people who have done that throughout the season."
Arizona State: Caring For Each Other
When third-seed Arizona State (19-9, 11-7) recorded a 79-66 win over then-ranked No. 16/18 DePaul on December 21, 2010, Sun Devil coach Charlie Turner Thorne got a glimpse of what was in store with her team for the rest of the 2010-11 season.
"I think we are a team that responds and I was proud of our win over DePaul," said Turner Thorne who is in her 15th season at Arizona State. "We are a team that when we have lost, we have responded well. They come back, they work hard and care about each other, which has been fun. I have liked their ability to respond. They will address problems."
This caring environment then came into play during a tough Pac-10 schedule.
"When you see that you have to play the Los Angeles schools on the road and then host the Bay Area schools on your schedule you realize you could go 0-for-4," said Turner Thorne. "At UCLA we did not get it done and had to do some soul searching. During the USC game we did not play great and I think we only won that game based on some positive energy. In that Cal game, we couldn't buy a basket. I think we shot in the 20's that game and we won that game completely on a little bit of luck and more positive energy and not wanting to let each other down. They bought in to how we need to play 40 minutes of defense in this conference in order to be successful. Those are a couple of examples of how they have won games by believing in each other and with some positive energy."
Having a caring environment has been especially important for a team that has not had a lot of time together.
"I think our Pac-10 season has been a little bit more up-and-down than we hoped, but in the grand scheme of things, we learned how to weather injuries and our team was able to play together," said Turner Thorne. "Our team really hadn't played together. Most of our players did not play right away because they were here when we had a really strong senior class. Looking back I think that this year's team did really well for themselves given the amount of experience they had coming in."
This positive team energy stems from a starting line-up that include 5-foot-5 redshirt senior guard Dymond Simon (ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring with 13.8 ppg), 6-foot-5 senior Becca Tobin (12th in the Pac-10 with .78 blocked shots per game) and 6-fooot-2 junior Kimberly Brandon (11th in rebounding in the Pac-10 with 6.6 rpg).
"When we had another weapon in Briann January, Simon would be able to just play and not have people key in on her," said Turner Thorne. "Now she is back as a fifth year senior and everyone is keying in on her. It's a tough situation to come into and I think she has handled it wonderfully."
"Tobin is another player whose role has steadily increased as she has stepped up for us this year. She is one of the players who we are trying to draw on after having the experience of playing in the Elite Eight. I think that Becca has played well and has the experience level."
"Brandon has emerged after moving her from the three to the four spot. We moved her and she went crazy. I think she is absolutely a first team All-Pac-10 player."
Rounding out the starting five for Arizona State includes 5-foot-9 senior Tenaya Watson (fourth on the team in scoring with 7.4 ppg) and 5-foot-7 sophomore Deja Mann (started 11 games this season).
"Watson is a hustle with the muscle player," described Turner Thorne. "She does a lot of the dirty work, works hard, makes plays and gives us a lot."
"In the pre-conference Mann was a 10 or 15 minute kid and now she is starting for us and playing 26-27 minutes. She is only a sophomore who had back-to-back ACL injuries in high school and is way behind after not playing for two years. Her freshman year was about getting back into the swing of things and this year she is becoming the player that we signed. She is as good as she could be and is a strong, athletic, hard working and disciplined guard."
No matter how much positive energy or luck the Sun Devils enjoyed during the regular season, they know the first stop on a long road to the NCAA tournament is in Los Angeles this week when they face tenth seed Oregon State on Wednesday.
"We are not playing at home again, so we are going to have to be able to win on the road to progress through the season," said Turner Thorne.
Arizona: Controlling Destiny
Moments of clarity and understanding can happen at any given time during a season.
For the fourth-seed Arizona Wildcats (10-8, 19-10 Pac-10), it came in the middle of the conference schedule.
"It was as simple as having them wake-up and understand what was at stake and what our goals were at the end of the year if we worked to keep them alive," said Arizona coach Niya Butts, who is in her third season at Arizona. "They came together and I give credit to them for being resilient despite some setbacks."
After finishing the pre-conference with a 9-2 record, it was a mid-season dry spell when the team was swept by USC and UCLA at home and then California and Stanford on the road which turned the season around.
"I feel like we have had three seasons," said Butts. "At the beginning of the year we started out strong and were playing well together and better offensively than defensively. Then we got to the middle of season and hit a dry spell and weren't performing to the best of our ability. Then we were rebounding back to where we were at the beginning of the season and playing some of our best basketball."
Their best basketball has been led by a pair of seniors.
"Ify Ibekwe (6-foot-2 senior forward who leads the Pac-10 in scoring with 16.1 ppg) is showing herself to be one of the premier players in the conference and country," said Butts. "I couldn't be any happier with her play, especially down the stretch."
"[Six-foot-one senior forward] Soana Lucet (third on the team in scoring with 11.3 ppg) is a worker and the heart of our basketball team."
Other members of the team that have contributed to the success of the season include 5-foot-11 sophomore guard Davellyn Whyte (seventh in the Pac-10 in scoring with 15.2 ppg), 5-foot-8 junior guard Brooke Jackson (ninth in the Pac-10 in three-point field goal percentage) and 6-foot-2 freshman forward Erica Barnes (started 15 of 29 games this season).
"White is a sophomore for us but has taken on a strong leadership role and giving us her all at point guard," said Butts. "Jackson has given us some great minutes off the bench and knocking down three-pointers when she has the chance, diving on the floor for loose balls and making some muscle plays."
"Barnes has had a great year for us despite missing some games. We will have her back for the tournament and feeling pretty good about our team as a whole and what everyone has given us from a production stand point."
Now it is time for the Wildcats to continue producing in the first round of the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament on Wednesday against ninth seed Oregon.
"It's been a total team effort and I've been pleased with our whole team," said Butts. "We control our destiny and we're not sitting back like we did last year or even two years ago. Right now we go out there to solidify our place in the Pac-10 and we are in control of that."
USC: Crunch Time
Fifth-seed USC (18-11, 10-8 Pac-10) started the season with a pair of big wins over two Top-25 teams (then-ranked No. 22 Gonzaga and then-ranked No. 17 Georgia). Despite the momentum of finishing their pre-conference season 9-3, the Women of Troy struggled through their conference schedule by not winning more than two games in a row.
"[We need to focus on] more of our defense and better executing on our offense," said second-year USC coach Michael Cooper. "I thought we did a great job tonight against a Washington State zone that was not a match-up man-to-man zone that sometimes had us confused. I thought we did a great job of maneuvering around and getting open shots. Especially in the first half when we got a lot of lay-ups."
USC's concerns were on display even in their last Pac-10 Conference game at home against Washington where the Huskies were able to overcome a 15-point deficit in the second half to force the game into overtime. USC was able to push past Washington thanks a team effort that was led by 6-foot redshirt senior guard Jacki Gemelos (third on the team for scoring with 11 ppg) and reigning Pac-10 Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 6-foot-1 junior guard Briana Gilbreath (eighth in the Pac-10 in rebounding with 7.6 rpg).
"The whole team has been pleasurable to coach and I think we have seen improvement in all of our players," said Cooper. "When you have a company like we have, it makes coming to work fun."
The Women of Troy will first meet up against eighth-seed Washington State in the first game on Wednesday of the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament.
"I think our players are coachable, know what is at stake and what we have to do to get back to the old Women of Troy from 1983-84 when they won championships. We still have a lot of pride here and that's what we are working towards. We've got players who will listen to you, do what we are trying to do and execute to the best of their abilities, which makes coaching fun and is fun for them to play."
Sixth seed California (15-14, 7-11 Pac-10) may have struggled during the second half of conference play by experiencing a six-game losing streak, but with a win over 10th seed Oregon State and then a loss to one seed Stanford, the Golden Bears are staying confident.
"I like how we came back in the Oregon State game and I liked how we approached the first half of this game," said California coach Joanne Boyle who is in her eighth season at California. "That confidence is something to build on going into the Pac-10 Tournament. It is a new season. We have to take some of these positives with us because it can be anyone's tournament. It is a short period of time. You just have to play ball well."
This confidence for the Golden Bears may come from their pre-conference schedule when they entered the Pac-10 schedule with an 8-3 record.
"We came into Pac-10 season excited and looked at is as a new season outside the non-conference. We are young and trying to gain some experience with some good games in the non-conference (schedule)," said Boyle.
Setting the pace for the Golden Bears heading into this week's Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament are a strong group of underclassmen that is led by 5-11 senior guard Rachelle Federico 5-foot-11 guard, 6-foot-3 sophomore forward DeNesha Stallworth's 14.5 points per game and sophomore guard Layshia Clarendon's second-best 12.8 points per game. The Golden Bears currently have nine of their 11 players that are either freshmen or sophomores.
"We've had trouble with our scoring this year and had to look at some different rotations in terms of our offense," said Boyle. "In the last two game. Federico has stepped up as a senior by putting some points on the board for us, opening up the game and getting our post players more one-on-one touches."
"I feel better going into the tournament with our guard play and the confidence in that. We are excited about where they are now."
No matter who steps up for the Golden Bears, it will need to happen starting on Wednesday against seventh seed Washington
"You always want to go into a tournament with a little bit of confidence. We have sophomores who played in it last year as freshmen and got a little bit of experience. For anyone going into tournament play it is a new time where the slate is clean. You just go in and play your best basketball. The environment is exciting and it gets everyone going. Washington is a great team and we've played them twice so we know them well. I think the kids know what they need to do to position themselves to win that game. It's just a matter of going in and doing the things we do well."
Washington: Husky Brand of Basketball
After losing five seniors and welcoming in four freshmen, seventh-seed Washington (11-15, 6-11 Pac-10) did not have to do some soul searching this year. Instead they had to find and establish something more profound.
"I think we identified the brand of basketball that we want to play," said fourth-year Washington women's basketball coach Tia Jackson. "We feel that our record is not indicative of the accomplishments we have made all year, but I think we established our brand of basketball, have stuck with it and are moving forward. We are a pretty physical team, pride ourselves on defense, love the inside/outside balanced attack instead of just having a more guard or post-dominated team. We love the balanced attack. We are a team that prides ourselves on executing both offensively and defensively."
After a rollercoaster pre-conference where the Huskies handled the adversity a makeshift line-ups, injuries and fouls, they entered the challenging conference schedule in the midst of a learning curve.
"We can probably say a ton of things, but I think that when you come off of great highs, you want to build on those," said Jackson. "We are learning every day and as we go forward, but it has to be something that is ingrained so that we know how to move forward after coming off a high of a game. Win, lose or draw, it's important to move forward and not take a step or two backwards."
Helping the team has a whole more forward to the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament has been strong season-long performances by the experience of 5-10 junior guard/forward Kristi Kingma (third scorer in the Pac-10 with 15.8 ppg), 6-3 redshirt junior Mackenzie Argens (13th in the Pac-10 in rebounding with 6 rpg) and the emergence of 6-1 freshman forward Marjorie Heard (fourth on the team in scoring with 7.4 ppg). This has helped the Huskies finish seventh during the regular season and prepare them for the upcoming conference tournament and their first game against sixth seed California on Wednesday.
"It's been a collective effort instead of it just being one person that has been responsible," said Jackson. "We have so many players who do so many different things."
Washington State: Moving forward
Eight-seed Washington State (8-22, 6-12 Pac-10) may be one of the younger teams in the Pac-10, but after playing the 13th toughest schedule in the country according to RPIratings.com and finishing with more conference wins than they have since 2001, it has been a youthful outlook that is helping them move forward with each game.
"We are really proud of our group," said Washington State coach June Daugherty, who is now in her fourth year of coaching in the Palouse. "We're excited, as we had some signature wins both at home and away. We feel like we have improved every weekend which is important to do in the Pac-10."
Their pre-conference schedule was not only a challenge due to having ranked teams to face, but this young team also had to learn how to let adversity roll off their back.
"We started out with a difficult pre-conference and did not have our leading scorer and play maker (April Cook) until about halfway through the pre-conference," said Daugherty. "It took us a while to adjust and fortunately during that time some of our younger players got some valuable experience. Then Cook came back and played relatively well this year considering she has been so injured. We feel like we have improved every weekend which is important to do in the Pac-10. We are pretty healthy coming into not only the last weekend of conference play but the conference tournament as well."
Five-foot-eight junior Cook may have resumed her leadership role on the team, but it has been the emergence of other players such as 5-foot-10 redshirt freshman Ireti Amojo (ninth in the Pac-10 in three-point field goals made with averaging 1.6 per game), 5-foot-10 junior guard Jazmine Perkins (team leading 10 points per game) and 6-foot-1 freshman Sage Romberg (15th in the Pac-10 in three-point field goals made with 1.27 per game) that is part of the team effort that has helped make history at Washington State.
"We have some amazing upperclassmen in our program who are great leaders for us," said Daugherty. "At the same time we have six new faces that didn't know what to expect when they came in. Our newer players have had great success early on in their collegiate career in the Pac-10. They have a great view and taste of what it takes to win at this level now."
The Cougars are now planning to use their season-long motto to make it through their first opponent fifth seed USC in the first round of the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament starting on Wednesday.
"At the beginning of the year, our motto was 'Finish,'" said Daugherty. "We are pretty healthy coming into the conference tournament and it's an exciting time. We have some great kids that are hungry to keep on winning and improving."
Oregon: Work In Progress
Champions are not built overnight. Instead, as former NBA and WNBA coach Paul Westhead is finding out at ninth seed Oregon (13-16, 4-14 Pac-10), it takes the baby steps of several seasons.
"I think the best description of our season is that it has been a work in progress," said Westhead, who is in his second season at Oregon. "We are a team that for the first few games, we worked on some parts of our game that were not to up to where we needed so we would try to get that cleaned up. Then we would need to focus on something else. We are still an evolving team and not playing to who we really are. On the plus side of this work in progress, I think we are getting better."
After finishing the pre-conference schedule with a 9-1 record, the Ducks have been working out the kinks of their fast-paced play during the conference schedule.
"The other area we rely on is being a very good defensive full court pressing team," said Westhead. "At times we have done that it has resulted in some good plays and wins. At times we haven't done this and it affects not only our defense, but how many points we score. That's another one of those work in progress things that we keep trying to clean-up. Whenever we think we have it nailed down, we fined other issues. It's like a road that isn't just going forward. Instead it has some curves in the road we didn't intend."
One of those curves in the road that wasn't planned was the loss of 5-foot-7 redshirt junior guard Nia Jackson (left knee sprain and right knee bruise), their driving force.
"Jackson's play up until the injury before the Washington game had been spectacular,' described Westhead. "She was the driving force of our offense and defense. From last season to this season, she got it and knew exactly what to do. She was adept at cutting teams up. The two-edged sword with her is that she got hurt and it cut us up."
Stepping up to handle the challenge of losing Jackson has been a junior and three freshmen.
"[Six-foot-two junior forward] Amanda Johnson (seventh in the Pac-10 in offensive rebounds with 2.59 rpg) had a good sophomore year and is now playing better," said Westhead. "I think her growth as a player is on-going. She is getting close to being a regular double-double player for us. She is evolving into what we hope from her."
"We have three Freshmen in (5-foot-6) Ariel Thomas (fourth on the team in scoring with 7.1 ppg), (5-foot-11) Deanna Weaver (fifth on the team in scoring with 6.8 ppg) and (6-foot-2) Danielle Love (10th on the team in scoring with 2.7 ppg) who as a group have been terrific. That's a plus for us and we are a different team now because of their input."
Now that the conference schedule is over, the Ducks are now focused on their meeting with fourth-seed Arizona in the upcoming Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament.
"My approach to playoff games is that you show up to play the games and you have to win the game or don't worry about anything else," said Westhead. "It's pretty focused. You just need to use all of the experience you have for 30 games going in and play your game. You better play to win because if you don't, you're done."
Oregon State: A New Beginning
After a coaching and many player changes during the off-season, the tenth-seed Oregon State Beavers (9-20, 2-16 Pac-10) are still in competition mode going into the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament.
"Figuring out who we were was a big part of the pre-conference," said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck in his first season in Corvallis. "In getting to know this group of players, I have been pleasantly surprised by how our players have a high character and how they came to work every day. They treat each other well and respected us coaches from the beginning. I wanted to create this type of environment and it came together pretty early."
The rebuilding of the Oregon State program started off on a high note after finishing the pre-conference schedule with a 7-4 record. Yet there have been some bumpy moments for the team when they started the Pac-10 schedule and did not record their first win until the second half of the season with a 51-46 win over Washington on February 5.
"I was happy with how we competed in the pre-conference where we got a few wins which were encouraging," said Rueck, who is an alumni of Oregon State and last coached at Division III school George Fox. "We then carried this momentum into Pac-10 play. To be able to be as close as we have to some of these great programs has been encouraging and makes me happy not only for this group, but it also is encouraging to see this as we move into the future. I can see this program coming together and being competitive before too long."
Leading the way for this team has been sole senior and 6-foot-2 forward El Sara Greer (third on the team in scoring with 9.2 ppg).
"Greer is our senior leader and she has been a dream to coach," said Rueck. "I wish she were a freshman so I could have more time with her. She sets the tone for this team as far as the work ethic, how the team will conduct themselves and prepare for each day. I think everyone has fed off this."
The future of the Oregon State program lies in a group of underclassmen who have come together quickly.
"Sage Indendi (5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore and second in team scoring with 10.7 ppg) was a Division III player two years ago for me at George Fox and has now broken the three-point record here at Oregon State," said Rueck. "She is now sees and believes that she can compete at this level, make plays and survive on the court.
"Earlyisa Marchbanks (5-foot-11 junior guard and fourth on the team in scoring with 8.7 ppg) is another one who has played phenomenal down the stretch. She plays with such a fire and passion that she is able to survive. She has had some nights where she has handled the ball well and come along for us.
Other new faces to the program to watch include 5-foot-9 full time starting freshmen guards Alyssa Martin (team-leading 12.5 points per game) and 5-foot-8 freshman guard Alexis Bostick.
"Martin is a true freshman who has been there since the beginning for us," said Rueck. "She plays a lot of minutes and is holding her own. She is hanging tough and doing a great job despite the season taking a toll on her body and playing 37 minutes every night."
"Bostick has really come into her own at the point and realizing what she can and can't get away with at this level. I think she is doing a great job. We are excited about her in the future."
Yet before they can start working on their next season, it is the next game against third seed Arizona State in the Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament on Wednesday that needs immediate attention.
"The inexperience has been our greatest weakness," said Rueck. "When you have only one player who really knew what it was like to play at the Pac-10 level, we've been trying to play catch-up all along."
"Our hurdle is just learning how hard we need to play. We have recognized that we can play this hard for this long and consistently. I feel like we have found ourselves and are playing pretty close to our potential. Hopefully we can finish strong."