Almost every opposing coach that comes to the Connolly Center to play the Seattle University Redhawks has expressed confidence in second-year coach Joan Bonvicini's ability to guide them through the rough transition to Division I.
Although those might just be dismissed as empty platitudes wrapped in coach-speak, it's probably safe to say that their 62-43 upset of the University of Idaho Vandals could be considered as much a confirmation of her colleagues' faith in her as it was a surprise.
"To me this was more of a statement game for us in terms of how we want to play, what we want to do, and it's going to really build confidence for us," said Bonvicini.
In addition to being the largest margin of victory over a Division I opponent in Bonvicini's tenure with the Redhawks, it marks their third win in the last five games, and among their best shooting performances of the year in shooting 9-for-20 from beyond the arc.
And perhaps even more surprising is just how far they've come as a 3-6 team after starting the season 0-4: they executed as more of a unit last night than at any time this season.
They did a much better job looking for center Tatiana Heck in the post when she was open, reversed the ball without coaches having to yell it repeatedly, and played a swarming but controlled defense trapping even before the Vandals brought the ball over half court.
The Redhawks didn't give the Vandals much of a chance to breathe and when they did they had the opposition in such a frenzy that they continued to make hurried decisions, almost as if they were still anticipating the pressure.
"If anyone really knows me, (they) know the way I really like to get after people," said Bonvicini. "We like to switch defenses and force action and then be uptempo. And I think now what the players are going to learn is how to read each other, both offensively and defensively, because it completely changes the tempo of the game."
And it's certainly not that the style of play was a surprise, even in the context of this season - they'd done it before in spurts throughout the season, most notably when they came back from down 28 against Boise State last weekend. The big difference yesterday was that they seemed to do get it done much more cohesively and they did it for 40 minutes, essentially starting four perimeter players and a post player to keep the pressure on.
"This is really the way I like to coach," said Bonvicini. "We ran presses a little bit the past couple weeks. But what we did this week (was) we just taught our man press and we taught a little bit of a zone press. And I told our kids I'm sure they thought this week I was crazy because we had long practices and a lot of teaching and it was hard. Like I would not let them leave until they understood. And they're going to keep learning."
One player who it definitely understood was sophomore guard Daidra Brown.
Redhawks statistical MVP: Daidra Brown
"Our whole scout this week was pressure, pressure, pressure," said Brown. "So me and Amani are really good defenders and when we get together we make a really good backcourt just pressuring, pressuring, pressuring. So we weren't really like working together, but we were pressuring together to get steals together for the better of the team."
In starting with Brown, what stands out on her stat sheet is her 8 steals. She and fellow sophomore Amani Butler were leading the charge in their full court pressure attack with one stopping the ball handler and the other racing over looking to make the steal with Bonvicini yelling, "Get her!" from the sidelines.
"I think that really our team is going to start understanding and feeding off each other - we feed off each other's energy," said Bonvicini. "Daidra anticipates steals really well and those are the kinds of things in terms of another team that can really break their back. Just a great confidence builder."
It looked exhausting, but with Brown's anticipation - both in playing passing lanes to intercept the ball and trapping at just the right time to create the steal - all the effort was also gratifying.
"It's exhausting but it's a lot of fun," said Brown. "Like we had so much fun out there tonight and we played together. And that's the best win: when you come together and have fun, it's just amazing. It's a really good feeling."
And with eight steals, Brown also set herself up for easy shots, finishing with a 2-point percentage of 80% and 14 points overall.
Yet whereas the Redhawks were enjoying themselves at an exhausted pace, the Vandals didn't have quite as pleasant an experience - they committed 27 turnovers that led to 29 points off turnovers for the Redhawks (compared to 14 for the Vandals). So as much as turnovers marred the game, the more significant factor was the easy scoring opportunities the Redhawks got from those turnovers.
Key statistic: shooting efficiency
Entering the game, UI wasn't a great shooting team but was better than Seattle U at 40.9%. So it's hard to say whether Idaho's 27.5% shooting - dragged down by a 22.2% shooting first half - was more due to an off-night or Redhawks pressure.
"Idaho's a good team," said Bonvicini of the Vandals who were 6-2 entering the game. "Very good shooting team, particularly from the three. And their post player Yinka (Olorunnife) - we just made them out of rhythm on their shooting. And I was just proud of our kids."
Ultimately, the Vandals were missing a number of easy shots, particularly season-leading score Yinka Olorunnife who was 2-for-10 from the field but had a number of good looks at the basket.
Regardless, the Redhawks were relatively consistent throughout the night and shoot almost exactly their percentage for the game (39.3%) in both halves, with their 6-for-10 three point shooting in the first half making them a bit more efficient.
The player who contributed the most to that shooting effort was junior point guard Elle Kerfoot.
Key player: Elle Kerfoot
Kerfoot was on fire from the three point line in the first half knocking down all 4-of-5 of her threes in the first half for a team-high 18 points. And whereas many players were hesitating to shoot in the offense a few games ago, Kerfoot's shooting display in the first half demonstrated the type of assertiveness the coaching staff has been looking for and the team's comfort-level with the offense overall.
Perhaps most important as a point guard is that she had an efficient game as a distributor as well, creating an assist on 23.52% of her plays and turning the ball over on 11.76% for a pure point rating of 2.15. But in addition to her role on offense, Kerfoot also played a significant role in the defensive effort as well.
Vandals statistical MVP: Rachele Kloke
The Redhawks ended up holding the Vandals' two leading scorers - Kloke and Olorunnife - to a combined 6-for-22 shooting. And although Olorunnife did end up scoring a team-high 14 points as well as tying a game-high 8 rebounds, she was also forced into 5 turnovers at least partially due to misreads of Seattle U's defense.
For Kloke her biggest struggle offensively was the second half, when she went 1-for-6 from the field after going 3-for-6 in the first half. However, where she made the biggest difference was on the offensive glass where she got 14.10% of the available offensive boards and finished with a team-high 4 offensive rebounds before fouling out with 4:44 left in the game and the Redhawks up 57-35.
Looking for consistency after a fun, signature win
As compared to the general struggles of Idaho's stars, the fact that Seattle U put together such a markedly improved performance in a game where their top scorer - Salena Dickerson - was held scoreless says as much about what the team did well as the 27 turnovers that Idaho committed.
"Here Salena has a tough night scoring - she didn't score - but everyone else was able to come in and pick it up," said Bonvicini. "It was just a great team win."
There's little in the way of critique about this performance for the Redhawks because the most important thing about this game is that the team finally played the ways that we'd seen glimmers of in the past - Bonvicini has said after previous games that they just weren't ready to launch into 40 minutes of pressing, so to see it take hold so effectively 9 games into the season is impressive.
"We decided we have guards who can really get after people and we just decided to change the way we play and get a real identity here of what I like," said Bonvicini. "You know, Daidra Brown - she's in people's shorts. And Elle Kerfoot and Amani and you just keep bringing wave upon wave."
With UC Irvine coming to the Connolly Center next before a three-game road trip, the question will be whether they can keep up the momentum that they built yesterday.
"Obviously there's still things we've got to work on - we had some turnovers I didn't like and just mishandled the ball," said Bonvicini, referring to her team's 23 turnovers. "But I think we'll see a lot of good things happen from this."
But for now, Bonvicini just wants her team to enjoy the win.
"We're playing a very good team now Monday in UC Irvine, but I always believe in celebrating wins," said Bonvicini.