Every now and then while watching a women's basketball game outside the bright lights of national television coverage you witness a player that not only wows you with their will to win but also their pure talent.
Even if you notice the flaws in their game that kept them from getting noticed by larger, more prominent programs, the raw talent is a reminder of the increasing parity across the landscape of women's basketball.
On Friday night at the University of San Francisco's War Memorial Gym, that player was Northern Colorado Bears sophomore point guard D'shara Strange in a competitive 85-81 win for the Bears.
Key player: Strange falls one rebound short of a double-double with 17 points, 9 rebounds
Strange was coming off a triple-double performance against [previous game] and it's no wonder why - Strange had a combination of athleticism, skill, and vision at the point guard spot that really stands out in a game between two teams for whom a NCAA tournament bid is more of a distant fantasy than a realistic goal.
"D almost hit her head on the rim but missed the ball," said coach Jamie White of one rebound that Strange went up for maybe a bit too high.
There isn't really one thing that stood out about Strange and that's part of what made her so difficult for USF to stop. Against smaller defenders should would drive inside and just overpower them for layups. Against bigger defenders, she could get a defender moving backwards and pull up at full speed for a jumper, a move rarely seen at this level of women's basketball.
When Strange wasn't scoring, she displayed the ability to create for others by forcing the defense to shift in reaction to her and patiently wait for her teammates to get open. Then of course there's the matter of leading the team in rebounding with 9, including a defensive rebounding percentage of nearly 30%.
"I thought we did a good job distributing the ball," said UNC coach Jamie White in a radio interview after the game. "I thought D got inside, made good decisions. She also made some long-range pull-ups that I thought were nice."
Strange finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists on Friday night, but really made her impact felt on the scoreboard in the second half when she had 10 of her points to help bring the Bears back from down three points at halftime.
But while Strange might have been the focal point the gritty play of forward Lauren Oosdyke throughout the game gave the Bears a second option that made them difficult to stop.
UNC statistical MVP: Lauren Oosdyke's all-around play was hard to stop
Strange stood out more than Oosdyke because she had the ball in her hands so often, but Oosdyke seemed to be just about everywhere, hitting jumpers, getting rebounds, driving inside, and even swatting a shot out of bounds late in the game.
She picked her spots well, rarely forcing a play, and finished shooting 8-for-12 with a team-high true shooting percentage of 71.32%. There were stretches where it looked almost impossible for USF to stop UNC because they struggled to cover both Oosdyke and Strange.
And then Kaisha Brown started hitting threes for them.
Key stat: UNC solves free throw, three point shooting struggles
There was a time early in this game when it looked as though USF would cruise to their first home win in blowout fashion.
They got out to a 23-12 start in the first 9 minutes of the game behind a few outstanding plays by Vania Singleterry while UNC committed 5 of their turnovers. But then players started hitting threes around the 10 minute mark off assists from Oosdyke and Strange to Brown that really got them back into the game.
The threes weren't only significant to this game - the team hadn't yet hit a three in their first two games of the season. That's one of those things that's hard to explain, but UNC did pretty much the only thing they could do: keep shooting. In fact, in shooting 5-for-13 on Friday night, they took two more attempts than they'd taken all season (0-11).
"I think we're capable, it's just we've gotta be ready to shoot the ball with a little bit of speed and intensity and understand when our shot is gonna be there before we get the ball," said White. "I think Kaisha was really zoned in - hands were ready, feet were ready and I thought we did a good job, once again, getting the ball inside and then getting the kick out to get those threes."
That helped boost their shooting efficiency to an effective field goal percentage of nearly 60%, about 10% higher than USF's and ultimately the big difference in the game.
However, down the stretch, the game came down to free throws with UNC just about tripling their free throw rate in the second half and getting to the line at a rate of 40.7%. More importantly, they made 75% of those attempts, including a number down the stretch of a close game to keep USF at arm's length.
"I thought D and Lauren and Kirsten and Kim had some good inside-outside looks going," said White. "And I really felt like if we could get it inside there would be some fouling and we could just be pounding it in there all night."
For a team that had shot 58% in each of their two games prior to Friday night, that turnaround was as significant moving forward as anything else.
"In practice we shot I don't know how many free throws - I don't know, 40, 50, whatever," said Brown in a post-game radio interview. "And practice makes perfect."
But what really stood out in this game - aside from the will it required to come back from down 11 points early on and the talent of a player like Strange - was that UNC got a "total team effort" that helped keep USF scrambling.
And it was probably the most obvious difference between the two teams throughout.
USF statistical MVP: Mel Khlok scores a career-high 19 points
Similar to Strange, USF wing Mel Khlok scored a number of her team-high 19 points by making aggressive moves around the basket, both in half court sets and finishing on the break.
Although her scoring was valuable to USF on a night when leading scorer Rheina Ale was struggling through a 3-for-12 performance, it was her passing on the wing that was perhaps most valuable to the Dons.
She only had three assists, but didn't commit a turnover and set up a number of potential scoring opportunities that kept the ball moving. There weren't necessarily a whole lot of exciting passes from Khlok, but finding the open player at the right time more often than not with quick swings or drawing the defense one way to whip it back the other way.
In comparison to the previous game in which Ale did just about everything while the offense stagnated, Khlok is the type of player that kept the offense moving and kept everyone involved. However, the big difference in the game was that USF struggled to find players that could produce offense consistently.
However, the pattern developing this season for USF is that they simply didn't get consistent performances from anyone else. Ale had her moments but shot poorly. After a great start in the first 10 minutes of the game, Singleterry went only 1-for-2 from the field and 6 points the rest of the way. Reserve center Bailey Barbour came in and had a couple of nice moments in the second half, but also picked up 3 fouls in 6 minutes of play trying to keep up with a physical UNC team.
USF begins a five-game road trip with UC Davis today
USF, albeit improved from last year, is still looking to put it all together in one game at home this season. And while impressive individual performances have kept them in games, they have yet to earn them a win. Tonight they begin a five-game road trip with 4-0 UC Davis, which is looking to challenge USF's previous opponent Cal Poly for the Big West title this season.
Davis has sort of already gone through the period USF is in right now: assembling talent, finding consistency in performances, and finally making a conference tournament run to make a trip to the big dance last season.
But that progression that both coaches of Friday night's game are going through is still fascinating to watch - every win does something to build confidence, every loss is a learning experience to channel into winning down the road. It's how you manage the two that makes the difference in building a program.
As someone mentioned on Friday, games between teams at this level can actually be more engaging than the big marquee matchups between nationally ranked teams.
Winning and losing at that level are often determined almost purely on effort rather than dominant individual performances. What could be more engaging for those that consider themselves purists is the chess match of individual decisions, team execution and coaching strategy on display could almost be more engaging.
But that doesn't mean every individual simply gets lost in the performance of the collective - someone usually steps up on any given night to help channel that effort into successful possessions. And the ability for multiple players to create successful possessions is what generates wins.