Hosting a pair of top 10 teams this week, the Huskies can still earn a coveted top-four seed in the Pac-12 Tournament.They also can, with a victory over Stanford or California, get the type of resume-building win that would attract attention from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
These are big games -- ones that can help define the season. They are games that Kristi Kingma wondered if she'd ever play at Washington.
"It's an exciting time," said Kingma, who plays her final two college regular-season games this week. "I don't know how many games I've played at Washington that have actually meant something. They all mean something to me personally, but these games actually hold value and there is something that comes along with them. I haven't been in that situation a lot of times here, so it's definitely something that's exciting."
When Kingma came to Washington after a standout career at Jackson High School, she figured she would be part of a successful program being rebuilt by then head coach Tia Jackson. However, in her first three years, Kingma played on teams that went a combined 22-57, leading to Jackson's firing. Kingma was then hopeful that as a senior she could be part of a turnaround under first-year coach Kevin McGuff, but she tore her ACL before the start of the season.
Now, in her fifth year at Washington, Kingma has emerged as a senior leader as well as a go-to scorer -- she's second on the team with an average of 14.1 points per game. Most importantly, though, after three years of losses and one year lost to an injury, Kingma is getting to play in the big games she dreamed of being a part of when she arrived on campus in 2008.
"I always dreamt of playing in games that really truly mattered," she said. "Every game mattered personally, every game was competitive and everything meant something to me, but in the broad scale of things, these games truly do matter for building a program, creating an environment that recruits want to come play in. These games really matter. ... For me to be here and be a fifth-year senior, it really is capping off the best five years of my life being here. It's exciting and it's something to really look forward to for me."
Despite the year layoff, Kingma had high expectations for herself. So when she struggled to find her shooting touch early in the season, she refused to blame her injury or the time off. But as the season wore on and Kingma heated up -- she hit a conference-record 11 3-point shots in a win over Oregon earlier this month -- it has become clear that she needed a little bit of time to get back into the flow of the game, particularly while playing in a new system under McGuff.
"You've seen better timing and confidence in her game," McGuff said. "She didn't get a chance to do anything last year, and we have a new style of play, so familiarity with all of that has come together with her playing really well at the right time."
For Kingma and the Huskies to earn a victory over fourth-ranked Stanford would be tough task under any circumstances. Beating the Cardinal will be much tougher now, because the school announced Tuesday that three players, Jazmine Davis, Talia Walton and Deborah Meeks, have been suspended for one game for an unspecified violation of team rules. Davis averages a team-best 19.2 points per game and Walton is third on the team in scoring, averaging 13.9 points, and is second with 7.1 rebounds.
The suspensions make Thursday's game not just a test of Washington's depth -- which isn't the team's strong point to begin with -- but also a test of Kingma's leadership, the area of the game in which she has developed the most since her injury. In her first three years at Washington, Kingma was a scorer, but left the leadership to the team's older players. This season, however, Kingma is one of just two seniors on an otherwise very young team, so letting her game do the talking is no longer an option.
With just two games to play before the postseason, both against top-10 opponents, the Huskies will need Kingma's leadership, and scoring, now more than ever. And after years of losing, and a year lost to injury, that's a pressure-packed situation Kingma gladly welcomes.
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.
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