Women's Basketball Gears up for Pac-10 Championship Defense

Oct. 25, 2001

Almost immediately following Washington's season-ending game against Southwest Missouri in the 2001 NCAA Tournament, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the Husky lockerroom. Sure, there were tears and sadness at seeing the dramatic season come to a close, but more overwhelming was the sense of urgency displayed by the underclassmen.

'I'm very excited about next year,' then-sophomore Kellie O'Neill said after the elite eight game. 'We won't have six seniors next year, but everybody has learned from their leadership and their intensity and what they brought to this program. Everyone wants to build on what we made happen this year.'

'Sure, we're losing a lot, but we are gaining so much,' added Andrea Lalum, who led the Huskies in scoring with 18 points in their NCAA game against Oklahoma and was named to the West Region All-Tournament Team as a freshman.

Expectations are at an all-time high around the Washington basketball program. This is a team that knows what it takes to come within 40 minutes of the final four, to win a Pac-10 championship, to never give up and never look back. Nothing can take the place of that experience.

Yes, the 2001-02 team will be short on senior leadership, with just one on the roster, but it is not short on depth and experience. The foundation is in place for another successful run through conference play and deep into the NCAA tournament.

'There is no question we want to continue to build on the success we enjoyed last season,' sixth-year coach June Daugherty said, 'We want to improve upon the success of winning the Pac-10 championship and being able to take the program deep into the NCAA Tournament to the elite eight. The schedule we endured during Pac-10 play prepared us well for our postseason run last year. Our veterans know what to expect now and what we need to do to reach our goals. They won't settle for anything less.

'The big challenge for us, obviously, is losing six seniors and their leadership,' she acknowledges. 'But because so many players saw quality playing time last year, it's not as if we are starting over from scratch. The fact that we started two freshmen and a sophomore the majority of the season speaks well to the talent in the program. Our bench was deep and everyone knew their role. We want to continue to build on that experience and our depth will be a key element to our continued improvement.'

The quality of the depth also gives Washington the tools to produce a balanced team, one that has an effective inside and outside game. Daugherty's penchant for a run-and-gun offense is not lost on the post players, all of whom can mix it up inside but just as easily step out and hit a three-point basket. Last season saw Washington shatter the Pac-10 record for three pointers made in a season with 237. Though Megan Franza, the school's career long range leader is gone, the outside threat is not.

The Huskies will be led this season by four team captains, a unique move by the coaching staff that insures a strong balance in chemistry both on the court and off. Lone senior Heather Reichmann, juniors Cheryl Sorenson and Loree Payne and sophomore Giuliana Mendiola each bring a different element to the table and all are quick acknowledge the leadership skills handed down by the large senior class last year.

'They taught us well,' says Mendiola of the group that guided her through her first season. 'They made sure we played hard every game and played together. They taught us what was important and the work ethic and pride that comes with wearing a Washington uniform.'

The VeteransThree starters return from the 2001 team that posted the second-best turn around in the country with its 22-10 record a year ago. Payne, who lit up the scoreboard by averaging 17 points a game as a freshman two years ago, missed the first six games of the 2001 season with a foot injury. It didn't take her long to return to form though, and she continues to improve, rapidly developing into one of the premier jump shooters in the country. Her challenge is to provide the long-range jump shot to open up the inside game. She will also be looked at to penetrate to the basket and create more scoring opportunities for her teammates.

'Loree is going into her third year being in a leadership role,' Daugherty says of the junior, who again was invited to USA Basketball team trials over the summer. 'She has a keen basketball sense and as her play improves each year, so does her sense of team leadership.'

The addition of the fiercely competitive Mendiola, who moved into the starting lineup at point guard three games into her freshman season, took a share of the scoring burden off Payne's shoulders. Both averaged 11 points a game and Mendiola, at 5-foot-11, was the Huskies' leading rebounder through much of the season. The All-Pac-10 Freshman honoree was listed among conference leaders in as many as five different categories throughout the season, highlighted by her 1.47 assist to turnover ratio that was fourth in the league. Mendiola, Most Valuable Player at the Husky Classic, is also an outstanding floor leader and showed no hesitation in accepting her role as floor general.

'Giuliana sees the court well and has improved on knowing how to make her teammates around her better,' states Daugherty. 'She knows when to give them the basketball, what's the best situation for them to have the ball in their hands, and how to get it to them at the right time and the right place.

'Her toughness is unmatched,' she continues. 'She is a hard-nosed basketball player and extremely competitive. Individually, Giuliana probably sacrifices her own game for a total team effort but at the same time, she is capable of taking a game over with her skill level.'

Fellow sophomore Andrea Lalum rounds out the trio of returning starters. An NCAA West Region All-Tournament pick, the 6-foot-4 Lalum presents a frustrating challenge for opposing coaches as an offensive threat inside or out and she is comfortable in either role. Lalum's challenge this year will be to keep the Huskies the top rebounding team in the Pac-10, as they were in 2001 with an average of 42.5 boards per game. Her size affords her the chance to influence shots defensively and take care of rebounding.

'Andrea made great strides her first year,' Daugherty remarks. 'She learns quickly and her improvement level continues to soar. If she continues to work hard, Andrea has the opportunity to be one of the best front line players in the game, period, not just at Washington or in the Pac-10.

'Andrea's versatility, with the ability to post up and at the same time step out and hit the long range three, opens up so many opportunities for us. She is comfortable and confident scoring from both the perimeter and the post.'

Along with Payne, the junior class this season is critical to the depth Daugherty so often refers to. Kellie O'Neill, Emily Autrey and Cheryl Sorenson all played vital roles in that regard last season and each had breakout performances during the year.

O'Neill's opening statement came against Connecticut, the top-ranked team in the country at the time, when she scored 27 points against the defending NCAA champions. Add to that a 14-point performance in the elite eight game versus Southwest Missouri, and O'Neill raised some eyebrows. Her talent lies in her versatility on the court and ability to know what needs to be done and when. O'Neill relinquished her starting role midway through the season and positioned herself such that her offense and rebounding became a critical factor in the Huskies' rotation.

'Kellie's strength is that she plays hard and brings a great deal of intensity to the floor,' Daugherty explains. 'She is a strong, athletic post player who can really mix it up. Kellie has worked hard to develop her outside game to complement a very good inside game. She is capable of scoring big numbers in both areas. She also takes great pride in her defense and rebounding, so when she comes off the bench, we know what we're getting.'

Sorenson, actually a redshirt junior, offers versatile guard play when she's on the floor. Her ability to play the two, three or four positions was sorely missed two years ago when the Huskies struggled with injuries. Now, her versatility is key to the Huskies' effectiveness on offense. Anxious to return to action after sitting out the 2000 season with a knee injury, Sorenson came off the bench to score a career-best 12 points in the season-opener at Indiana.

'Cheryl is so valuable because she can play just about anybody at any position on the floor,' says Daugherty. 'She is so strong and athletic and can mix it up both offensively and defensively.'

Autrey fills much the same role as Sorenson, bringing a quick, athletic presence to the court. She has seen time in both a starting role and coming off the bench in her first two years.

'When Emily gets going, she can score in bunches and reel off several baskets in row,' Daugherty explains. 'We need to see consistency from her this season. She has great explosiveness and can provide good help defensively and in rebounding and scoring.'

The nucleus of returning talent this year includes Reichmann, who as the only senior on the roster, brings a keen understanding of what it takes to be successful in the Pac-10 Conference and the postseason. At 6-foot-1, Reichmann plays a valuable role off the bench, able to spark the defense and like so many of her teammates, pound inside for a basket or step out and hit from long range. She also threw the javelin for the Husky track and field team this season, placing seventh at the Pac-10 Championships, and has the arm strength to be a force with the basketball.

'Heather's experience and her physical abilities provide toughness for front line play,' Daugherty says of the team captain. She is athletic and strong and will do well inside with that strength and her quickness. She gives us an added toughness off the bench.'

Toughness off the bench comes in no better form than 5-foot-6 sophomore guard Gioconda Mendiola. Like her younger sister, Giuliana, she raises the level of intensity by bringing a fierce competitiveness to the court for every practice and in every game. That intensity came out more than ever in the final game of the year, when she was the Huskies' leading scorer in the first half of the game versus Southwest Missouri and battled for every loose ball and every rebound. Mendiola proved she could score early in the season when she put up a team-high 10 points against UCLA. She and her sister feed off one another and when both are on the court at the same time, the chemistry is palpable.

'Guts and grit,' says Daugherty. 'That's how you describe Gio. She raises the level of intensity and toughness every practice, every game. She is a hard-nosed defender who loves competition. Gio can play point or shooting guard for us and proved she can explode off the bench and be our leading scorer.'

The NewcomersAt the top of the list is not a newcomer, but a returning redshirt freshman in 6-foot-4 Sarah Keeler (Pendleton, Ore.). Sidelined by knee surgery in her first year, she returned to the practice court midway through the season. What the team loses in size and strength from leading rebounder LeAnn Sheets, they gain with Keeler, who along with Lalum is the tallest player on the roster. A year off from competition did not mean a year off from the weight room where Keeler has added strength and muscle to her sturdy frame since arriving from high school.

'We expect great things from Sarah,' Daugherty says. 'She is ready to hit the floor running, to come out and show our fans what they've been missing. Sarah made us better in practice last year because of her size and her skill level. She has been waiting in the wings and is finally able to come out and help the team in games, not just practice.'

Keeler joins a true freshman class considered by several basketball analysts to be among the best in the nation. All three players hail from the state of Washington, a trend set by Daugherty and her staff six years ago that continues to pay dividends.

'The philosophy of our program since I arrived has been to keep the best and the brightest student-athletes at home and wearing Husky uniforms for their college career,' states Daugherty. 'My staff and I are proud to say we've been successful in reaching that goal. The senior class in the state of Washington last year was extremely talented. We're thrilled they chose to become Huskies.'

Leading the way is Parade Magazine Third Team All-America and Washington's Gatorade Player of the Year Kristen O'Neill, one of the top high school players in the nation. The younger sister of junior Kellie O'Neill, she prepped at Lynwood High School, a perennial Washington girls basketball power, and led the team to the state title as a junior. In that championship game, O'Neill hit a three pointer to put her team ahead with two minutes to go and then scored the final six points to seal the championship win. She averaged 19 points a game as a senior and was ranked among the top 40 high school players in the nation.

'Kristen has great size,' Daugherty says of the 6-foot-1 freshman. 'Her athleticism and versatility gives us the flexibility to play her at the one, two, three or four positions. She can rebound and help our running game. Defensively, I think she'll match up well with other Division I players. Kristen is a real student of the game. She has been well coached and it shows.'

One of O'Neill's chief high school rivals is now her teammate. Kayla Burt, a lanky 5-foot-11 guard from Arlington High, joins O'Neill after the two were named the Everett Herald co-Players of the Year in 2000. Burt, who averaged 27.4 points per game as a senior earned Street & Smith's and USA Today honorable mention all-America honors. A point guard, she was the first female player in Snohomish County to surpass the 2,000-point barrier and finished with a career scoring mark of 20.9 points per game.

'She certainly knows how to score,' Daugherty says of Burt. 'And she can score in so many ways. She can penetrate, take you off the dribble or shoot the long range three and she scores a lot off steals. Kayla is a good playmaker who could see time at several guard positions.'

Rounding out the trio is Kirsten Brockman, a Street and Smith's honorable mention honoree whom the Husky coaching staff calls one of the strongest players it has ever recruited. A 6-foot forward from Snohomish High, Brockman sat out her senior season after suffering a knee injury though her credentials prior to the year speak volumes. As a junior, she was among the top 10 scoring leaders in the state while averaging 16 points and eight rebounds a game and leading her team to a third place finish in the class 4A state tournament.

'Kirsten is flat out strong,' marvels Daugherty. 'She is an outstanding athlete who competes hard, a tough hard-nosed rebounder. She defends the front line well and can be very physical. Kirsten is someone who will be a substantial presence inside because of her physical strength.'

The Pac-10 TournamentA new era begins in Pac-10 women's basketball this season as the first-ever conference tournament takes place March 1-4 in Eugene, Ore. The winner of the tournament earns the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. It also changes the makeup of regular season conference play as league games now begin in December rather than January. Washington's first Pac-10 game is set for Dec. 21 when the Huskies open against rival Washington State in Seattle.

Washington opens the regular season on the road with a visit to Lalum's hometown, Bozeman, for a game against Montana State. From there, the team travels to 2001 NCAA tournament participant Wisconsin. The 14th annual Seattle Times Husky Classic features Santa Clara, Princeton and Northeastern this year. The non-conference schedule has a new feature this season, the Pac-10-Big 10 Challenge. Washington has a rematch with Indiana in the first round, the team that knocked off the Huskies in overtime in its season-opener last year, and then will play Michigan in the second round. Washington State will play the reverse schedule in the challenge, also in Seattle.

'It's so exciting to step into new territory with the Pac-10 season starting in December,' Daugherty concludes. 'Certainly it makes you have to be ready a lot sooner than in the past. It's so critical to be prepared for the conference season. It puts a high premium on being ready earlier in the year. It changes the way we approach the season and our training and our non-conference games. It's going to let us know a lot sooner what the Pac-10 is about.'

Daugherty will rely on mixing the versatility and depth of her returning players together with the talent of her newcomers as she and the 2002 Huskies prepare to defend their Pac-10 championship.

'I'm anxious to get going,' Daugherty concluded. 'Our returning players can't wait to get into practice and start the season. Their talent and enthusiasm along with the fresh approach of our newcomers will be fun to watch. Last year was so exciting and I think this year will only be better. The Washington Huskies will have a bulls eye on their backs, as Pac-10 champions and elite eight players. That's a challenge we welcome.'

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