SEATTLE – A year ago, the University of Washington women’s basketball team was finally coming into its own as the regular season ended. The Huskies had won four of their past five games and seven of their past 11 to give them momentum heading into the Pacific-10 Conference Tournament.
Washington, which had no seniors and started a pair of freshmen in the backcourt, beat Oregon State in the first round of the tournament before falling to an experienced Oregon team, ending its season.
Huskies coach June Daugherty said gaining that experience has paid big dividends this season, and it should be particularly valuable tonight when Washington plays its Pac-10 tourney opener.
The Huskies (18-9), the No. 4 seed, meet fifth-seeded USC (17-10) at 7:15 p.m. in a quarterfinal matchup at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The tournament began with two first-round games Friday.
“We’re an experienced team now,” Daugherty said. “Last year, we had no seniors.”
While Washington does have more experience this season, it finished the regular season in a much different way than the 2005 team. Washington lost by a combined 54 points at Stanford and California last week.
Still, Daugherty is confident that her team is prepared to turn things around against the Trojans. Washington lost its first meeting against USC 64-61 on Jan. 14 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, a loss that snapped the Huskies’ 12-game home winning streak. Washington bounced back on Feb. 9 to beat USC 87-79 in double overtime.
“Defensively, we were way more in the passing lanes,” Daugherty said. “We were able to take them out of their offensive sets and force them to go into different sets that they don’t run all the time. We rebounded very, very well. We attacked that game with a great deal of intensity. Every time we were able to get a stop or rebound, we were running.”
Washington hurt itself in the first game by making just 4 of 13 free throws, including 1-for-9 in the second half, and was out-rebounded 40-25. USC also held first-team all-conference guard Cameo Hicks to nine points.
In the second game, Washington shot just 33 percent but out-rebounded USC 64-49, including 32 (yes, 32) offensive rebounds. The Huskies also forced 29 turnovers, including 10 by Trojans guard Camille LeNoir, among the league leaders in assists.
Despite her turnovers, LeNoir did have an impact in the two contests, scoring 38 points total. She is one of two talented point guards on the USC roster. Jamie Hagiya led all players in conference play in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“They have a very good front line, they’re very athletic and their point guards are really tough,” Daugherty said. “They come at you with so many athletic weapons.”
USC’s star is junior guard Eshaya Murphy, a first-team all-conference pick who may be the most improved player in the conference. Murphy finished the season averaging 17.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals, and in Pac-10 play she averaged 18.6 points and 7.7 rebounds. Against the Huskies, she scored 43 points in the two games.
“You better know where she’s at,” Daugherty said.
To combat USC’s athleticism, which it uses to pressure the ball and force turnovers, Washington must get good play from its guards, who have struggled recently. Hicks, who had 25 points in the second USC game, will be keyed on by the Trojans so others have to emerge as scoring options. The Huskies also have to get back to the defensive level that has led them most of the year, but was mostly absent last week.
“We know in the postseason they’re going to let you play,” Daugherty said. “It’s going to be physical. Our focus is to get us back to what’s been successful all year. That’s defending well, rebounding well and not giving up second- and third-shot opportunities.”