The San Jose State Spartans came into War Memorial Gym on a rainy Saturday afternoon in San Francisco as the type of team that any good team should expect to beat.
Despite the best efforts of guard Ta'Rea Cunnigan, who ranked among the nation's top 25 scorers entering the game, the 3-6 Spartans came into the game on a three-game losing skid in what looks to be an even tougher season ahead as they enter conference play. Not only are the Spartans the youngest team in the nation but also among the most short-handed: with freshman Paris Baird redshirting this season, the Spartans only have eight women eligible to play in 2012-13.
That the San Francisco Dons pulled away early and never relented on their way to a 92-64 win was the latest sign on the court of the type of progress described by Michelle Smith of espnW in her recent feature about the program's rebuilding process.
The 28-point margin represents the biggest margin of victory in coach Jennifer Azzi's three-year tenure with the team and the first time since the 90-91 season that the team has put together back-to-back 90-point games. Anyone with even passing familiarity of basketball analytics will tell you that points scored are a poor way to evaluate a team, but what makes this win significant was the way they did it.
"Playing together," said senior Mel Khlok, the hero of last year's milestone win at BYU who had a game-high 29 points on 9-for-14 shooting against San Jose State. "Coming together, focusing in practice and just listening and believing in what our coaches are telling us.
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There's no question that 5-foot-9 guard Mel Khlok is the top player on this team, whether looking at her stats or watching her play. But her approach to leadership, or rather her steadfast refusal to even state that she is the leader, is representative of the broader culture change that's evident on the court.
"No, no, no - I don't want to say it's my team," Khlok said after a win against UC Davis earlier this season when it was suggested that she had emerged as the senior leader this season, assuming the role once filled by the now-graduated Rheina Ale. "It's a whole team, it's our team."
Although the Dons' are off to a 6-4 start this season, consistency - at least on the surface - has been hard to come by.
This past week's success against SJSU and previously Notre Dame de Namur followed a five-day break after a devastating 77-33 loss to a hot shooting Cal State - Northridge team, disappointment compounded by the wait to play again and rebound from defeat.
"We had a long time off after that," Khlok said after Saturday's game. "Northridge was a good team; they're not bad at all. Coming off a loss like that - I haven't lost like that in a while - the whole team, we were just really beat up and the coach came in there and said, 'Sometimes, it happens. But you just gotta let it go, blow it up, and come back in the gym. We were all itching to get back in the gym and get better. And we came back, played Notre Dame, did our thing and today we did our thing as a team.
Just as they seem to be on the cusp of a winning streak - or even setting a program milestone, as they would have had they gone 3-0 - they manage to drop a game in disappointing fashion: the Northridge loss, blowing a lead at Sacramento State, falling to Cal State - Fullerton and Fordham after a promising 2-0 start at home. It's all part of the process of learning to win, a process that Fordham's coach is familiar with as well.
"Fordham has never been good," said Fordham women's basketball coach Stephanie Gaitley after defeating the Dons in San Francisco to go 4-0 for the first time since the 1995-96 team did it. "You know, this is my second year in the program - when you're good, it's a good feeling. So it's a different type of pressure. So for us it's the first time in I don't know how many years that we're 4-0. So the kids needed to learn how to win in order to try to change culture; our biggest thing is changing culture."
That task of changing culture is the first task of any coach coming in to a situation like Azzi; not just learning what it takes to win games but the demands of functioning as a winning unit. Similar to what Gaitley described about Fordham, even 2-0 was an accomplishment for the Dons - it was the first time they had done that in the Azzi era, the first time they had even gotten through two games with a winning record since Khlok's freshman year.
"Being a senior and actually opening up the season being 2-0, it's just amazing," said Khlok after the Dons beat UC Davis. "But I know how hard the team works."
Part of that might be strategic, but a large part of it is a renewed confidence that might be just short of a swagger but just enough to demonstrate that they believe they can win games.
"I think Jennifer has done such a great job in just the difference of last year's team to this year's team," said Gaitley. "You can see it in the energy of the kids, you can see it in the belief, even when they made that run to go up. It's like, she faces the same challenge that I was facing: San Francisco - you can tell by (the banners) – they've had some success. Fordham has never had any success in the Atlantic 10 - they had some success in the old conferences."
But the ingredient that Khlok has harped on throughout the season is placing the success of the unit above individual accolades and spotlight. Khlok is leading the way on that front in the locker room, clearly leading the team with her example of selflessness for the good of the team; believing in themselves as a unit instead of individuals.
"Nothing changed," Khlok said when asked about her impressions of Jennifer Azzi in her third year of coaching after the Davis win. "It's just her believing and helping us believe and what changed is the team, believing in ourselves."
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While Khlok will constantly defer to discussing the importance of family and team even when asked about specific individuals, from the looks of it that's exactly what they needed - they've moved the ball better this season than they have at any time during the Azzi era.
"The main thing for us is coming together, not getting onto islands and stuff," said Khlok after the San Jose State win.
If islands mean playing less one-on-one ball, there isn't a more apt description for what's happening.
For those who have watched USF's growth over the past three years, what has stood out throughout USF's season so far in comparison is increased coordination on both ends of the floor. But the San Jose State rout stands, thus far, as the epitome of all the progress made over the past few years.
The Dons built a 22-point first half lead on the strength of an outstanding 13 assists on 17 field goals, finding each other for high percentage shots around the basket against SJSU's 1-3-1 zone defense and drawing fouls to get themselves easy shots from the free throw line where they went 18-for-20. In the second half, the ball movement continued and the 3-point looks that they got in the first half finally started falling - they went 3-for-6 from beyond the arc in the second half. Khlok's own five assists and nine rebounds signal a change for her from merely being a scorer to becoming a well-rounded player capable of helping her team in multiple ways.
Most importantly, the defensive intensity that has been strong all season was present once again on Saturday night. In addition to holding the Spartans to just 32.8% shooting as a team, they made scoring difficult on Cunnigan by holding her to just 4-for-18 shooting individually. The stocky 5'9" sophomore was able to find herself to the line for 7-for-11 shooting to finish with a team-high 16 points, but open looks were hard to come by for the Spartans' leading scorers; with few other consistent scoring options, the Dons were able to contain Cunnigan by collapsing whenever she entered the lane and contesting most of the shots she took from the perimeter.
Although Khlok was the player largely responsible for defending the Spartans' star scorer, it was the team effort that stood out - and seemed not to relent even in the second half well beyond the point when the game was no longer in doubt - and has defined their improvement this season.
"Family," Khlok said when asked what has changed between this year and last, when the Dons won five games. "People who are willing to take charges for each other. People who are gonna have each other's backs on the court and just family and togetherness. And unselfishness."
On a weekend with a couple of major upsets, the Dons' win against a team they should probably have expected to beat anyway wasn't going to register on the national radar barring an outcome so outrageous that the mainstream couldn't help but pay attention. But the key to the 2012-13 Dons is that they understand as well as anyone that progress is more about process than the results that appear in the standings, the consistent focus coming from the players has been on the internal dynamics rather than X's and O's.
"We're not there yet - we've still got a lot of building to go," said Khlok. "Once we go into Cal Poly - and they're a different team - we're going to have to adjust to them and play our game but also adjust and not get caught up in the winning and losing. That's not what we're about; we're trying to build a program. And I feel like us believing in Coach Azzi's philosophy and just getting better everyday, not worrying about the wins and losses, it will bring a lot of confidence going into conference."
Nevertheless, there are some tangible milestones at stake in tonight's game against Cal Poly.
With a win in San Luis Obispo tonight, the Dons would not only be assured of entering conference play as at least a .500 team for the first time in years but also move within two games of matching their combined win total from the past two seasons with two non-conference games left to play. Of course, Khlok is about as unconcerned with comparing their improvements this season to their performance in the past. But for the first time in her career at USF, she can look forward to entering conference as an underdog with the potential to do more than making noise merely for catching a couple of tournament teams off guard.
"We just gotta stay together and focus; if we don't play together - wooo," Khlok said with a look of exasperation on her face.