- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Well positioned for back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since the release of Nirvana's "Nevermind," and with at least a chance for the most wins in any season since around the time the current freshmen were born, Washington nonetheless remains somewhat off the radar in women's basketball. A week ago, the Huskies received just four points in the AP Top 25 voting, one point less than SMU and Duquesne, which is to say, not roundball royalty.
In just the second season of coach Kevin McGuff's tenure, Washington has the look of a program ascending in a conference continually asked, fairly or unfairly, to prove it is more than just Stanford and the Cardinal's coattails.
So what can a team that plays games on Friday nights with tip times after 10 p.m. in the population centers of the East do to earn attention beyond the West Coast?
One answer might have come when redshirt senior Kristi Kingma hit a 3-pointer just 14 seconds into Friday's game at Oregon. Not long thereafter, she received some sage counsel from assistant coach Mike Neighbors.
"Hey, if you hit another shot, you're not turning any down tonight," Kingma recalled Neighbors telling her.
She missed her second try and her third try. But then she hit one. And another. And, well, it was difficult to ignore what came next from a player who wears No. 10 because of the shooting show she saw Jackie Stiles put on against her beloved Huskies in a 2001 NCAA tournament regional in Spokane.
Kingma found plenty of looks in the game against Oregon, hoisting a total of 17 shots from the 3-point line. She hit 11 of them, a Pac-12 record and one field goal shy of the NCAA single-game record (reached most recently by former Purdue guard Brittany Rayburn).
Excluding Washington, there were 29 other teams in action Friday. Only one of them, Northeastern, managed to hit more than the 11 3-pointers Kingma made on her own. And she didn't even play the final four-plus minutes of the game, instead given the rest of the night off with her team ahead by more than 20 points in an eventual 97-71 win.
Not bad for someone who struggled through a stretch a week earlier in which she hit just 4-of-19 3-point attempts at home against USC and UCLA.
"I have the benefit of playing for coaches that, no matter how many shots I miss, continue to encourage me to keep shooting," Kingma said. "I think that's ultimately what you need as a shooter. When you go through a couple of games where you're not hitting as many shots as you want, I think when you have coaches that just continue to encourage you to shoot and give you confidence, that is the best thing a shooter can ask for."
Third on the Huskies in scoring, rebounds and assists, Kingma is just one piece of a puzzle that prominently includes sophomore guard Jazmine Davis (19.5 points and 3.5 assists per game) and redshirt freshman forward Talia Walton (14.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game). And beating Oregon isn't going to sway anyone when it comes to potential NCAA tournament seeding. But Kingma's big night shines a light on the momentum in Seattle since McGuff surprised some by ditching his Midwestern coaching roots to try and awaken a sleeping Pac-12 giant (and the level of high school talent available in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Seattle, makes UW exactly that).
"The best thing he's done for us and for this program is kind of lay down the law that there's no such thing as excuses," Kingma said. "There's going to be injuries, there's going to be low numbers of bodies, we're going to be playing in tough environments and on the road and stuff like that. From the beginning, he's never been a coach to make an excuse. He's just kind of instilled that in us, and I think we take that approach."
What the program has the potential to become won't be realized until long after Kingma is gone, if it's ever realized at all. Even at 18-6, this is a work in progress. But someone who is a part of this season only after going through the grind of rehab following the ACL tear that cost her last season says she is having the most fun of her basketball career. When it comes to the merits of paying attention, that's a strong endorsement.
That and 11 3-pointers.
"Obviously, there are limits on the recognition that comes along with Washington women's basketball," Kingma said. "We haven't had a ton of success over these few years, but I think people really would enjoy watching how we play and watching how Coach McGuff treats us and interacts with us. It's such a fun program."
Go Army, Beat Navy
By all accounts, it isn't easy being a freshman, or plebe, at West Point, but if any newcomer is due a little leniency, it's Army's Kelsey Minato. After all, less than a year into her stay at military academy, she has already mastered the one thing that matters most to the Knights in athletic competition. Beating Navy.
The freshman from California scored 19 points and added six rebounds Saturday in Army's 48-40 win in Annapolis, Md., against its rival academy. The result gave Army a season sweep against Navy, in no small part because Minato also totaled 17 points and seven rebounds in her first game against the Mids weeks earlier. In both cases, the freshman was the only player on her team to play all 40 minutes.
Second on the team in scoring overall, Minato actually leads all Patriot League players at 16.5 points per game in conference play, shooting 46 percent from the field and 41 percent from the 3-point line in those 10 games. The 5-foot-8 guard is also hanging around the league leaders on the boards at 5.0 rebounds per game in conference play.
No wonder even the announcer on Navy's radio feed suggested Minato might not be the freshman of the year in the conference, she might be the player of the year.
Sweeping Navy might generally be enough to make any Army season a success, but Saturday's game was also for first place in the standings. The two academies are tied atop the table at 8-2, but Army's sweep gives it the tiebreaker advantage. That's no small matter in the Patriot League, in which the higher seed hosts throughout the conference tournament. Army memorably made its one and only NCAA tournament appearance in 2006 under the guidance of the late Maggie Dixon. Now in his seventh season, coach Dave Magarity was Dixon's associate coach that season.
She also starred
Shalonda Winton, Cleveland State: It was a tough week for Cleveland State, which went 1-2 and lost to cellar dweller Milwaukee in the Horizon League, but it would have been worse without Winton. The senior averaged 25.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.3 steals in three games, including 32 points, nine rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 steals in a win against Illinois-Chicago. And it's not as if Winton piled up numbers at the expense of efficiency. For the week, she shot 46.6 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from the 3-point line. She is safely in the top five nationally at 22.6 points per game.
Michigan's Jenny Ryan played only once in the week, but she made it count. Ryan scored a career-best 24 points to go along with 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals in a 70-69 win against Michigan State. Not only was it the first win against the Spartans for Ryan and the other Wolverines seniors, it was the first win in the past 13 games against the team from East Lansing and just the second since the 2001-02 season. Michigan's leader at better than five assists per game has almost three times as many assists as any teammate, but her points mattered this day.
Team of the week
Fresno State: It might be the soccer fan in me, but I love a good race for a regular-season conference title and loathe conference tournaments with the fury of a thousand fire ants with foul dispositions. What's earned over months should not be equal (and really even secondary, given NCAA tournament automatic bids) to the results of a few days. But that's a jeremiad for another day. The short of it is the Mountain West has one of the more competitive races, a three-team chase involving Fresno State, San Diego State and Wyoming, and Fresno State helped its chances greatly this past week. Before a win at home against Wyoming, splitting that series for the season, the Bulldogs went to New Mexico and pulled out a 51-50 victory at a place that isn't the impenetrable fortress it once was but remains a tough road trip.
San Diego State still holds first place by a game over Fresno State and two games over Wyoming, with the Aztecs traveling to Laramie, Wyo., for a game Wednesday that will determine exactly how exciting the final weeks will be. But Ki-Ki Moore and the Bulldogs did their part. Moore went for 20 points, 5 steals and 4 assists in the win against Wyoming and 15 points and 7 assists in the win against New Mexico.
Elsewhere in upstate New York
Army obviously needs the Patriot League's automatic bid to make the NCAA tournament, but we have probably reached the point that it's safe to say another team from the Empire State will spend the regular season's final weeks determining where, not if, it fits in the postseason picture. Last week ranked No. 23 in the AP poll, No. 35 in the RPI and projected as a No. 7 seed in Charlie Creme's Bracketology, Syracuse then went out and improved to 9-2 in the Big East and 21-3 overall with wins at Georgetown and at home against Pittsburgh.
For so many seasons a team that feasted on junk-food scheduling out of conference and dropped out of sight by the middle of February, piling up 20-win seasons that left the Orange both unprepared and uninvited when the postseason rolled around, this team has a chance in the remaining weeks of the regular season to live up to its record. The early wins against Saint Joseph's, Virginia and, to a lesser degree, Georgia Tech increasingly hold up as wins of reasonable quality and a winning conference record is assured. A closing stretch that includes home games against Louisville, Rutgers and Villanova and a trip to Notre Dame is what remains. And no team that is so close to having its tournament ticket already punched has more on the line.
Before next weekend
Baylor at Connecticut (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Monday): Maybe you heard these teams were playing? The most-hyped game of the season, even if Notre Dame would surely like to remind all of us there is a reason it's not No. 1 vs. No. 2, has arrived. Brittney Griner and Stefanie Dolson will be the literal centers of attention for good reason, but the perimeter matchup should be equally compelling, particularly when the Lady Bears have the basketball.
Odyssey Sims in some ways announced herself to the college basketball world with an uber-confident shooting performance off the bench against Connecticut in the first week of her freshman season (in a narrow defeat), then starred in her team's win at home against the Huskies last season. So how to slow her? Connecticut has arguably the best on-ball perimeter defender in the country in Kelly Faris, but regardless of how Faris is deployed, freshman Moriah Jefferson is likely to be the only player in the building Monday with the same kind of quickness as Sims. And it just so happens that Jefferson is playing the best basketball of her young career, her minutes off the bench against Rutgers on Saturday important in a game that proved to be the typical tough trip to Piscataway for the Huskies. Without an ill Bria Hartley for much of the game, Jefferson handled extended duties.
The New Haven Register's Jim Fuller had the prescient look at Jefferson leading in to the game at Rutgers, looking at the mentoring relationship that developed over the summer between Hartley and Jefferson.
Duquesne at Dayton (Monday): The biggest hurdles between Dayton and a perfect A-10 season might both be home games, this one against Duquesne (8-2 in the A-10) and the regular-season finale against Saint Joseph's (8-1 in the A-10).
Central Arkansas at Oral Roberts (Tuesday): It's the first of two regular-season meetings between two of the most notable statistical marvels in college basketball, Central Arkansas' double-double machine Megan Herbert and Oral Roberts' scoring standout Kevi Luper. It's also an important Southland Conference game between first-place Oral Roberts and fading-but-dangerous Central Arkansas.
Arkansas at Georgia (Thursday): Four of Arkansas' seven conference losses are by four or fewer points, not even including a six-point overtime loss against Kentucky. That said, this might be last-chance saloon for the Razorbacks when it comes to any NCAA tournament aspirations. They had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio and shot nearly 44 percent from the field out of conference, but those numbers have fallen off the table against SEC opponents.
Florida State at Duke (Friday): There is a phrase ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, and presumably others, like to use: How good is your good? Florida State showed it has its flaws in a loss to NC State this past Thursday. But in a win at home against North Carolina, the Seminoles showed their good is at least Sweet 16 good -- maybe more. In a complete win, they had an inside presence from Chelsea Davis and Natasha Howard, efficient perimeter scoring from Leonor Rodriguez and Alexa Deluzio and steady point guard play from Morgan Toles and Yashira Delgado. But can they do it again in their toughest road game?
14dBonnie D. Ford