USF coach Jennifer Azzi (left of center) coaching her first game against Sonoma State.
For most coaches, exhibition games are just a chance to play somebody different, most meaningful to the extent that they serve as something of a dress rehearsal.
But for first-year University of San Francisco coach Jennifer Azzi, there might have been a little added significance to the Dons 61-34 home win against Sonoma State University Friday night.
"Now no one will tell me anymore that I haven't done it before," quipped Azzi when asked about her first game coaching. "At least now I have sat in that seat and people can stop telling me that. But it felt very natural for me. And to have (assistant coach) Katy Steding who has head coaching experience and has been there for years and has been a teammate of mine in really difficult situations - to be right there by my side, it means all the world.
"Obviously an advantage for me and Katy is having played for one of the best coaches that has ever coached the game (Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer). And I think an advantage that Katy and I have as well is that we've played for so many great coaches that I think helps us a lot as we teach."
As tweeted by fellow Stanford alum Angela Taylor who was also in attendance Friday, perhaps there was even a little evidence that Azzi and her staff - which includes former Stanford teammate Steding - have already made an imprint on this team.
If nothing else, it was evident that this is a perimeter-oriented team - despite a clear physical advantage, the Dons relied heavily on long jumpers and threes to win. As a team, the Dons shot 6-13 from the three point line in the first half, with those three point attempts accounting for over 40% of their total first half shots.
And Azzi might have had a little something to do with the team's eagerness to launch shots.
"They're shooting well, we've focused a lot on shooting just from May on, just helping build our confidence in shooting," said Azzi. "And, you know, I told them we could press full court the whole game or they could improve their shooting. So I think that they'd rather do that. So we'll see how it goes: if you see us shooting poorly, you'll see us start to press more."
Key player: Ashley Boggs
The Dons took control of the game after the 10:40 mark with a three pointer off the glass that launched a 17-1 run over the next six minutes. The three was the first of two consecutive threes for sophomore Ashley Boggs who came off the bench for a would-be career-high of 18 points, including 4-9 from beyond the arc. It's not only an encouraging sign for the Dons who never scored more than 8 points last season, but also the result of hard work in the off-season.
"There's really no secret," said Azzi. "I mean, you know as players when you're younger - it's the players that are in the gym when no one's around that tend to improve the most and she was in the gym all summer. She was working on her game, she's just been tremendous all Fall. Just doing all the little things, doing whatever it takes. She doesn't care if she starts, if she doesn't - she's just always the same. She's very, very consistent and she's worked a lot on her shooting."
One of those little things that Boggs displayed was her footwork coming around screens or finding openings in Sonoma State's zone: she moved with purpose and approached the ball perfectly with the intent to shoot in rhythm upon receiving it, as great shooters do.
In addition to the scoring output and overall scoring output, more subtly impressive in this exhibition setting was her footwork coming around screens or finding openings in the zone with the intent to shoot in rhythm when she got the ball.
*Statistical MVP: Rheina Ale
Yet even in an exhibition, it was clear that the strength of this team is their starting backcourt of junior Rheina Ale and Colorado senior transfer Kelly Jo Mullaney.
Both shot 2-5 from the field, but WAC Preseason All-Conference selection Ale was particularly adept at getting to the free throw line, shooting 6-7 there and finishing with 11 points. However, the other advantage of having two strong guards is that it gives them two points of attack from which to initiate the offense which certainly helps a team that stands poised to rely heavily on perimeter play.
"What I like is that they can both handle the ball and they can both score," said Azzi. "It's not in my, I guess, personality to really want a point guard that doesn't look to score because I think you're much more of a threat as a team when you have a point guard that can score."
For Mullaney's part, it's clear we haven't yet seen her best - while she absolutely looked comfortable in the offense, has excellent scoring instincts, and arguably the most fluid shooting motion on the court - Boggs notwithstanding - good looks weren't falling last night.
Key statistic: effective field goal percentage
After stops at both Colorado State and Colorado already, Mullaney is a well-traveled guard who has played against some of the strongest competition in the nation in the Big 12 and was the leading scorer at Colorado State.
"I don't think she had her best game tonight in the way that we've seen her play," said Azzi. "But she just adds a maturity, she's a senior, played at a very, very high level, so she brings a lot to us. Just even from up and down conditioning, she's just solid everyday."
Whereas Ale was definitely the more aggressive scorer, Mullaney was a strong complement at point guard as a distributor. Nevertheless, she showed flashes of strong scoring instincts - with 5:03 left in the first half, the 5'7" guard made a nice move into the teeth of the defense and pull up for a short one-handed floater that drew a response from the crowd as the team was in the midst of its big run.
Azzi expects more from Mullaney on the scoring front as things move forward and it will be needed: while the team finished the game with a blistering 42.9% three point percentage, they only shot 35% from the field overall. Mullaney will definitely be a player that they'll need to step up.
"She can shoot the ball, she can absolutely shoot the ball," said Azzi. "That's one of the reasons that we really wanted her here so badly: her leadership and her ability to score."
Next challenge: building a winning culture at USF
While there may be some question as to whether the current generation even knows who Azzi the Stanford, Olympic, ABL and WNBA player, the significance of such a compliment from a women's basketball legend is not lost on Mullaney.
"It's unbelievable - I couldn't say more," said Mullaney, who came to USF for graduate studies in education. "Everything good you could think of I would say about her. I love her, she's been an amazing coach so far and an amazing person. I definitely looked up to her as a player and everyday you think about what she's been through as a player and it encourages you to do better because she's a great leader on the floor and I respect her for everything that she's done in her past experiences."
Yet for all that Azzi has been through in her career, there's one thing that she's rather unfamiliar with as a player at the NCAA level: losing.
To put it in perspective, Azzi is essentially in the opposite position from her days as a player. USF was picked to finish last in the WCC Women's Basketball Preseason Poll with Gonzaga as the heavy favorite. Whereas the Dons lost 27 games in the 2009-10 season, Azzi lost 23 games in four years as a player at Stanford, won two Pac-10 championships, and won the NCAA National Championship her senior year in 1990.
This is not familiar territory for a woman who has a basketball resume loaded with NCAA, international, and professional experience. And there is no question that Azzi is intent on building this team into a winner - nobody wants to be a perennial cellar dweller.
What can sometimes prove most frustrating for winning coaches taking over struggling programs - or in Seattle University coach Joan Bonvicini's case, a transitioning Division I program - is that there will eventually be some losses after a pre-season of high expectations and happy feelings.
Yet for now, Azzi is much more narrowly focused on making this the best experience possible for this group of players at USF and sounded optimistic about the journey ahead of her with the group she has inherited for the 2010-11 season.
"It's gonna take time," said Azzi. "But one of the things that I don't want to do is kinda take for granted the players that are here now because we've got some talent on this team and, like I said, they've been working very, very hard. So I want to - and I have, from day one - treated them as if we recruited them because they get their college experience one time and as much as college athletics is about winning and losing it is an experience for these young women and I want them to have a good one."