Ten Schools in Ten Days: Washington State Women's Basketball Preview

Oct. 25, 2005

Moral victories are tempting but to true competitors it's no substitute for the real thing.

'Losing is unacceptable,' Washington State Head Coach Sherri Murrell flatly states. 'Don't accept it. Build upon competitiveness; build upon competitive losses, but get somewhere after that.'

The Washington State women's basketball team displayed several significant signs of improvement during the 2004-05 season.

The Cougars made substantial progress closing the scoring gap in games each year since Murrell's arrival at WSU, culminating in an average scoring margin that was in single digits.

Another indication of the progression was the increased number of competitive games that went down to the wire. In 2004-05, WSU was involved in nine games decided by six points or fewer, more than the previous two seasons combined (eight).

Defensively, the team held the opposition to below 70 points 19 times. In 2003 that number was seven and improved to 13 in 2004.

Finally, WSU began its climb in the conference standings with its highest finish in the Pac-10 since 2001.

Despite those improvements the category that the team did not make headway in was the win column, as the Cougars were only able to match their 2004 win total.

'One of the signs of how the program is beginning to grow is that it is being competitive,' Murrell added. 'However, those competitive losses are in no way satisfying to us.'

Therefore, as she enters her fourth season on the Palouse, Murrell is focused on instilling in the team that winning, with postseason competition the goal, rather than being competitive, is what the Cougars will be pushing toward from this point forward.

Headed for that goal is a team comprised of 14 student-athletes, two more than who were on last year's squad. The increased number will give Murrell what was missing last season: depth.

Anchoring the Cougars is a quartet of players -- juniors Kate Benz and Adriane Ferguson and seniors Charmaine Jones and Keisha Moore -- who are all returning starters and played a significant role in the Cougars' improvements last year.

None more significant than the achievements by forward Kate Benz. Only a sophomore, Benz made history in 2005, becoming the first Cougar to lead the conference in rebounding.

The 6-foot-2, Portland, Ore. native averaged 9.1 rebounds a game to best Oregon's Cathrine Kraayeveld by nearly a rebound a game. Rebounding was not the only category that Benz made an impression in the Pac-10 rankings. Benz was third in the conference with eight double-doubles, led the conference in defensive rebounding (6.57/game), was fifth in offensive rebounding (2.50/game), and eighth in minutes played (31.86). Additionally, she was 15th in scoring (10.4 ppg).

'It was an enormous accomplishment, especially when you look at her size and height,' Murrell said of Benz leading the Pac-10 in rebounding. 'Kate is someone who doesn't jump out at you as a rebounder when you look at her. But you can't look at her heart and it is huge. She has a passion to get the ball and she has a passion for winning. She seems to find where the ball is and get it.'

Another category that Benz was in the conference upper echelons was minutes played. Benz averaged nearly 32 minutes a game, eighth most in the Pac-10, and was the only player to start every game for WSU.

The accumulation of minutes may have taken its toll during the season's latter stages. In the final seven games, Benz averaged 8.6 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.

That was a drop-off from 11.7 points and 10.7 rebounds a game during the previous seven-game stretch.

The lack of depth the Cougars experienced in 2005 was only magnified by the fact of where the Cougars play: The Pacific- 10 Conference.

'As much as we are getting better, so is the Pac-10,' said Murrell, who signed a contract extension last March that will keep her at WSU through 2010. 'To have five teams go to the NCAA Tournament and all of them advance out of the first round is impressive.

'That challenge was difficult last year in the sense that we had a lot of close losses in the Pac-10 schedule,' Murrell added. 'In the large majority of those games we just ran out of fuel. We did not have depth. The great play of some of our players that we depended on was negated because we just ran out of gas at the end.'

Second on the team in minutes played was Ferguson, who averaged 29.6 minutes a game. After missing the season-opening game against Boise State with a concussion, the 6-foot guard played in every game after that, starting all but one contest.

Ferguson started the season off on a torrid pace. In her first game of the season at Nebraska, Ferguson drained six 3-pointers en route to scoring 26 points. Ferguson followed up that performance with an 18-point effort in the win at St. Mary's (Calif.) on her way to earning an All-Tournament team selection at the Hilton Concord Thanksgiving Classic.

In her first eight games, Ferguson averaged 13.4 points and registered seven double-digit scoring games. Her production tailed off, however, over the ensuing 19 games as the Spokane, Wash., native averaged 7.9 points a game and recorded seven double-digit scoring games.

Ferguson didn't let the end of the Cougars' basketball season end her playing time for the year as she traveled as a member of an Athletes in Action team that toured Spain in May.

'I truly believe that this will be Adriane's best year,' Murrell said. 'She is ready now more than ever. 'The first recruiting class of ours, Kate and Adriane, are juniors now,' Murrell added. 'They have a lot of experience, including at the international level.'

Charmaine Jones finished the season third on the team in scoring with a 9.3 points a game average. Consistency, or lack thereof, beset Jones throughout the season. The 5-foot-6 guard scored in double-figures in 11 games including a career-high 26-point performance at USC; however, all but two of Jones' double-digit point games came in consecutive occurrences.

'Charmaine had some great games but lacked consistency,' Murrell said. She's an impact player but she has to be able to bring it every night.'

After sitting out the season's initial seven games because of NCAA transfer rules, Moore played in every game, starting nine of the last 10 games including the final seven games of the season. The 6-foot-2 forward ended the season fourth in the Pac-10 in blocks (1.2/game) and seventh in rebounding (6.0/game).

'Keisha is a big part of our nucleus,' Murrell said. 'She was out of basketball for a year and a half so it took awhile for her to adjust. Her best games came at the end of the year and she will impact us at the start of this season.'

Backing up the four returning starters are a group of six returners and a freshmen class that Murrell describes as 'the most solid recruiting class that the staff has put together' since she has been at WSU.

Senior Crystal Blue returns after an injury-plagued junior campaign. Blue, a 5-foot-10 guard, missed the final 14 games of the season with a stress fracture of the third metatarsal bone on the left foot. When healthy, Blue played in 12 games, including three starts.

Another Cougar who was hampered by a foot injury was redshirt sophomore Nikki Stratton . Stratton redshirted last year for medical reasons as the 5-foot-11 guard had an injury to the sesamoid bone under the right big toe, which occurred during the 2003-04 season.

'Nikki's type of injury is very painful,' Murrell said. 'She may play one night and she may not go another night. It is really disappointing but she is a strong tough kid, and we are hopeful for her recovery. Even the nights when she is going to be hurting quite a bit she is going to give us 100 percent.

'It's a similar situation with Crystal,' Murrell continued. 'They both have unique injuries to their toes and it's just one of those things where both of them are going to be touch and go.'

A trio of players, Dani Montgomery, Jordan McCormick and Brynn Bemis , make up the Cougars' sophomore class.

Montgomery brings what Murrell depicts as 'fire to the team.' The 5- foot-11 guard played in every game before missing the last three games with a right high ankle sprain that occurred in the first half of the game at Washington, Feb. 19. Prior to her injury, Montgomery had averaged 3.1 points and 1.7 rebounds a game.

'Dani has done a great job of working on her skills from the outside,' Murrell said. 'She is a kid who played on the inside as a high school player so she needed to develop her outside skills and she has worked extremely hard to do that. She is someone who is going to get better each year.

'The area that hurt us the most was shooting,' Murrell added. 'Our defense kept us in ballgames. You look at our shooting percentage and say `How are we in games?' It was because of our defense. Dani is someone who contributed to that defensively. She is a stopper. She is someone who we can put on an opponent's better guards.'

McCormick was another player who missed a good part of the season due to injury. The 5-foot-10 guard missed a dozen games during the Pac-10 portion of the schedule with a mild shoulder sprain. McCormick's year was highlighted by a season-high seven-point effort in a win at San Diego State, Dec. 11. McCormick sparked a comeback by accounting for the Cougars' final five points of the first half, which shaved an eight-point Aztecs' lead to three at the break.

'Jordan is maturing in this game,' Murrell said. 'She has tremendous athletic ability, which is something that she has to combine with the level of competition that we are playing. She is working extremely hard on her skills to go along with that.'

Bemis is WSU's two-sport athlete. A goalkeeper for the soccer team, the 5-foot-10 Bemis walked on the basketball team in November of last year and played in four games during the season.

'Brynn is such a quiet core to our team,' Murrell said. 'She is someone who contributes in all the intangibles that our team needs. Brynn is a two-sport athlete so she just needs more time on the court to develop her skills. She has done a great job; she has worked extremely hard.'

Redshirt freshman Sabrina Shired rounds out the returning contingent. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Shired was unable to play last spring but did practice with the team. The 6-foot-4 center averaged double figures in points and rebounds in each of her last three years at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Calif.

'With her size, Sabrina is going to be a defensive stopper,' Murrell said. 'She will make people adjust. She's hasn't played basketball in a year and a half so I don't see consistency happening right away, but she can contribute just by her pure size.'

In addition to the returners, a quartet of freshmen arrives to contribute depth to the team.

Katie Appleton will replace Jessica Perry , who departs WSU seventh on the school's all-time assists list with 335, at the point. The 5-foot-8 Appleton comes to WSU from Apple Valley High School near Big Bear Lake, Calif.

While at Apple Valley, Appleton averaged at least 11 points and six rebounds a game in each of her last three seasons. A three-time All-CIF Southern Section First Team honoree, Appleton earned Mojave River League's Player of the Year honors as a sophomore when she averaged 11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.2 steals and 5.1 assists a game for a team that compiled a 21-6 record including a perfect 8-0 mark in league play. As a senior, Appleton recorded 14.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.5 steals a game.

'Katie Appleton thinks like a senior as a freshman,' Murrell said. 'She is a smart, intelligent point guard and is someone I don't feel uncomfortable putting out there as a freshman to be able to lead our team because she can handle that. I look for her to jump right in and carry our team as the point guard.'

For a team that finished 2005 last in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage (.354), Murrell sees Amanda DuRocher as a key additional threat from the outside.

A 5-foot-9 guard from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Wash., DuRocher was named the South Puget Sound League's co-Player of the Year. DuRocher averaged 17 points a game leading Bethel to a 23-4 record, including an undefeated mark in league play en route to a SPSL South championship.

'Amanda will help us win games with her shooting ability,' Murrell said. 'She has a strong upper body and her range is pretty far out. She will give us a spark in that category for sure.'

The other half of the freshmen class, Ebonee Coates and Heather Molzen , bring the Cougars an added presence in the key.

Coates comes to WSU from Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash. The 6-foot-4 center, who was named as a Top 100 Seniors by Blue Star Index, scored 723 points in her Curtis career. In addition, Coates was a member of the USA West team that won every game at the 2004 USA Basketball Women's Youth Developmental Festival.

'Physically, Ebonee is exactly what we need in the post,' Murrell said. 'She has long arms, is tall, very muscular, and very strong as a freshman. The more experience that she gets, she is going to get better and better. She has the potential to be one of the outstanding posts to come out of here.'

Molzen, a 6-foot-3 forward/center, comes to WSU from El Capitan High School in Lakeside, Calif. As a senior, Molzen averaged 18.4 points and 11.2 rebounds a game. She led East County in field goal percentage at 61.4 percent (212-of-345) and blocks (3.1/game). Those numbers earned her a third straight All-Grossmont North League and All-East County First Teams in addition to being named first team All-CIF Division II.

'Heather is a Kate Benz but taller,' Murrell said. 'Her rebounding is the biggest asset that she brings to us. She rebounds really well. She also is someone who can play on the inside and the outside. Heather is someone, from the time when we recruited her, who has jumped 10 steps ahead in each aspect of her game. She keeps getting better and better.'

Six teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, including three Sweet 16 participants, and a trip to Hawaii Thanksgiving weekend highlight this season's schedule.

'What jumps out to me about the schedule is that it's a good mixture of home and away games,' Murrell said. 'We play some very challenging teams that have NCAA experience. I'm excited to play back-to-back home games to get the season started.'

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