Although you never want to assume that you've seen all that a player like Gonzaga point guard Courtney Vandersloot is capable of, it's hard to imagine her playing any better than she did last night.
Vandersloot scored 29 points on UCLA's stingy defense to become the first-ever college basketball player to amass 2000 points and 1000 assists while helping Gonzaga to an 89-75 win over the UCLA Bruins that was both much more competitive than the final score suggests and less of an upset than their respective seeds suggest.
With the already frenzied near-capacity crowd of 5,804 Gonzaga fans already at the brink of blowing the roof off the McCarthey Athletic Center, Vandersloot took it up a notch after notching her much-anticipated 10th point with 12:21 left in second half to clinch the milestone.
"I think she just found her rhythm in the second half and she just took over," said UCLA senior guard Doreena Campbell, who finished with a team-high four steals.
Gonzaga statistical MVP: Vandersloot put together a beautiful performance
Vandersloot scored 21 of her 29 points in the second half, including 12-for-13 free throw shooting. And perhaps her ability to get to the free throw line a career-high 17 times in a tournament game against UCLA best illustrates her evolution into a player that is able to remain consistently aggressive in driving to the basket even against a team that attempted to rough up the 5-foot-8 senior with a slight frame.
Yet in addition to reaching that distributing/scoring milestone that solidifies her as among the most complete pure point guards that college basketball has ever seen, she added a career-high 17 assists to move within five of the NCAA single-season record. She could have had even more had Kayla Standish not gotten fouled on two short-range attempts or Janelle Bekkering, Gonzaga's best three point shooter, had been a little more accurate than 1-for-6.
Quite simply, her passing alone made Vandersloot's game last night among the most beautifully composed point guard performances one could possibly imagine with misdirection plays, no look passes, subtle changes of direction, beautifully placed one-handed bounce passes, and what appeared to be a one-handed desperation that traveled half the court to set up a fast break layup.
It was absolutely remarkable and that it came against among the best defenses in the nation was even more remarkable. So needless to say - yet stated simply to support my dejected SoCal friend's point - UCLA wasn't particularly pleased with their defensive effort.
"We let Vandersloot do what she wanted," said UCLA forward Jasmine Dixon who had her eighth double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "Whatever press we threw at her, we weren't aggressive so she was able to do whatever she wanted to do. On our end, we needed to step it up and we should have made sure our press was aggressive every time we set it."
However, even with Vandersloot dominating the headlines in individually accounting for 41.10% of Gonzaga's overall statistical production, it's probably a testament to the strength of this team that she was not the lone hero.
Key player: Kayla Standish was on fire in the second half
For all that Vandersloot did, it might immediately sound absurd to even suggest that any other player came close to matching her. Yet for long stretches of the game - and particularly in the second half - the spotlight belonged to Gonzaga forward Kayla Standish, who was 7-for-7 in the second half before missing a jumper with 6:43 left in the game.
"Kayla carried the weight for a lot of the time and it's tough to do when she is being played against big, aggressive posts," said Vandersloot when asked about what changed in the second half. "At some point someone needed to step up with her and go with her. That's something great about our team is that we have people to be able to do that."
Standish nearly matched Vandersloot's performance in accounting for 35.41% of the team's total statistical output. For a time, it seemed like there was nothing that UCLA could do to stop her.
"When she got the ball, she turned around and shot it," said UCLA forward Jasmine Dixon. "It seemed like every time she got the ball, she was always in. She was given a green light every time and every time she scored. We were a little slow on adjusting to that. I think she was hot. Good teams will get the good players the ball, which they did."
Standish was among the players prior to the season that was expected to step her game up and last night's game was the culmination of her remarkable development as a player since coming off the bench behind Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson last season. The progression of Standish's game even since playing Notre Dame in Seattle this past December has been among the keys to Gonzaga's success. She's become more aggressive inside playing through contact and almost looks like an entirely different player in her willingness to seek out scoring opportunities all over the court.
"I thought Standish did a great job really working the baseline area while Vandersloot controlled the top of the floor," said UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell. "So you had that one-to-four look that a lot of great teams have. They were able to execute with that type of penetration, with that type of ability to knock down the open shot."
Standish's feel for the game allowed her to draw contact and get to the line at a rate of 50% and shooting 7-for-7 in addition to a team-high 20% defensive rebounding percentage, which is about normal for her this season.
However, what was strikingly abnormal was the combined effect of Standish and Vandersloot that Caldwell alluded to above.
Key statistic: Gonzaga's outstanding synergy rating complements star power
Contrary to what my friend said and consistent with Caldwell's thoughts on the game, Vandersloot didn't single-handedly defeat UCLA but she and Standish did combine for 76.5% of the team's overall statistical output. Normally when that happens, one might expect that those two players got no support from their teammates. But adding to what made last night's performance truly a landmark occasion for the program is that the Bulldogs played extremely well as a unit even if their two stars were dominant.
"Everyone else kept scoring and everything was clicking," said Standish when asked about whether she realized how much she scored.
That chemistry that Standish felt translated into outstanding scoring efficiency for Gonzaga and ended up being the most significant reason for their win statistically. On the strength of 3-for-6 three point shooting and 68.42% two point shooting, Gonzaga had an effective field goal percentage of 70% in the second half. When you add an 88% free throw rate and 19-22 shooting from the line, Gonzaga actually had one of the best halves of the season against one of the best defenses in the nation.
Equally impressive, if not more, was the extent to which Gonzaga was able maintain their ball movement and that's what synergy rating is for. The formula for synergy rating is simple:
Synergy rating = assisted field goal percentage + effective field goal percentage
What synergy does a remarkable job of describing is how well a team is identifying efficient scoring opportunities with ball movement- conceptually, a high number of assists per made field goal indicates that a team is moving the ball well to create scoring opportunities. If that is accompanied with a high effective field goal percentage it means that not only was the team relying on ball movement to create scoring opportunities, but also creating efficient scoring opportunities that they were able to capitalize on - in other words, there wasn't just a whole lot of ball movement to create bad shots.
While synergy does an amazing job of describing a qualitative element of basketball quantitatively, it is an odd stat because it's more descriptive than explanatory - for example, a team that misses a lot of shots but gets a lot of offensive rebounds and second chance scoring opportunities doesn't need a high synergy score to win (e.g. 2005/6 Sacramento Monarchs, 2010 Washington Mystics in the WNBA) nor does a team that relies heavily on forcing turnovers and scoring in transition in theory. But for many teams, moving the ball to score efficiently is going to be good because it forces the defense to rotate and eventually wears them down.
To put synergy in perspective, Gonzaga's assisted field goal percentage actually dropped from over 90% to under 70% in the second half yet their synergy score didn't didn't change much.
To put those numbers in perspective, Stanford is one of the highest synergy teams in this year's tournament at 1.13. The WNBA champion Seattle Storm were the highest synergy pro team at 1.14. Gonzaga wasn't far behind either at 1.12 this season, but they clearly blew away the numbers we typically consider as great synergy against one of the best defenses in the nation.
Most interesting about Gonzaga's performance last night - and synergy in general - is that although they didn't have as many assists to show for it in the second half, they did an outstanding job of getting the ball into the hands of players who could make shots in position to make shots. In Standish's case, that was essentially anywhere in the building, but that also extends to Vandersloot picking her spots well and figuring out when to set up less scorching hot players.
"She picks and chooses when she's going to score because she's a smart player and the team knows when she penetrates certain areas on the floor...they're always moving and giving her that target because she commands the defensive scheme to make sure they key in on her."
UCLA statistical MVP: Jasmine Dixon established herself in the paint early
Although UCLA is not typically a high synergy team, their synergy increased from 0.97 to 1.22 in the second half. The big difference was that they relied heavily on Jasmine Dixon to create scoring in the post during the first half and then started getting more from the perimeter in the second half.
"We always try to establish an inside attack," said Rebekah Gardner who was big from the perimeter in the second half with 8 points including 2-for-2 shooting from the three point line. "With (Dixon) in there we try to give her the ball every time. Maybe not necessarily that they didn't have a lot of presence in there, it was just that we always try to establish an inside attack to make the outside attack much easier."
Whereas in the first half Dixon was getting layup after layup in the post, in the second half she increased her free throw rate and finished shooting 5-for-7 from the free throw line as part of her eighth double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds. In addition to finishing with a 90% free throw rate, Dixon had game highs in rebounding percentages with an 18.51% offensive rebounding percentage and 28.49% defensive rebounding percentage, both outstanding marks.
And yet it wasn't enough - foul trouble sent her to the bench after dominating the paint early in the first half and Gonzaga went into halftime down only three despite only getting 1 offensive rebound in the first half.
"For me personally, I felt I let my team down in the first half with the two quick fouls I got. I sat out the last 10 minutes of the first half. If I would have kept myself in the game, I would have been able to contribute a lot more. I think I wasn't 100 percent the first couple of minutes of the game."
UCLA was very good on a great night for Gonzaga
Certainly some UCLA fans will look at the outcome of this game with deep disappointment after a seeding upset. But in reality, even as the first major upset of the tournament, this was rather predictable - Gonzaga was not only underseeded but playing in front of an exuberant home crowd.
So ultimately, this was less about a letdown from UCLA and moreso about a simply outstanding all-around performance by Gonzaga, easily among the best in the nation this season. UCLA actually turned in an above average performance in many ways, but to beat a team that got dominant performances from stars while sharing the ball so well requires greatness.
For at least one night, Gonzaga rose to the occasion reached a level of greatness that few teams have attained this season.
"Obviously, coming here this has been a great experience - one they will remember and take with them - even if the outcome wasn't in our favor," said Caldwell. "Gonzaga played an extremely, extremely good game, executed down the stretch when they needed to. But again, when you're playing this time of year, big players make big plays and obviously they were able to make bigger plays than we were."