Fighting through a combination of injuries and family tragedy as the regular season has come to a close, third-year San Francisco Dons coach Jennifer Azzi turned to an old friend for a little advice.
"Any coach that has been in this position before has experienced a season like this," Azzi said on Thursday night prior to USF's meeting with the Pepperdine Waves. "I reached out to Tara (VanDerveer) probably a month ago and I just said, ‘Oh my God, this is really challenging.' And she shared with me some stories that they've been through in the last few years really having to battle injuries and how to handle it in terms of how you practice, how you prepare to keep your athletes focused but fresh at the same time."
The fact of Azzi seeking advice from her former coach is not necessarily news to most women's basketball fans, but with only eight players available with two games to play on their WCC regular season schedule it took on additional significance on Thursday night.
Azzi needed someone to step up if they were to break the three-win barrier in conference play that had been difficult to crack over the last decade in USF women's basketball. And if there was any evidence that Azzi's consult with VanDerveer had an impact in USF's 67-57 home win against Pepperdine on Thursday night, it was present within the performance of 6-foot-3 center Bailey Barbour.
Barbour's senior year probably hasn't gone the way she envisioned it when she first accepted a scholarship to play at San Francisco. On a team that has posted double digit wins overall for the first time since 2008 and still striving to match a program-high of five wins over the last decade, Barbour has just been a reserve, sometimes a deep reserve. It's the culmination of a career in which she has gone from being a part-time starter in her sophomore year to essentially out of the rotation for the vast majority of this season until the injuries mounted to the point of requiring that she play.
However, when USF needed a bit of a boost to get them out of an early hole, Barbour responded with six points in her first five minutes of the game on her way to a season-high 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting which was one point short of tying a career-high.
"They told me first to start on defense and I think that's what I tried to go in there and do," Barbour commented after the game. "As a team, just moving the ball around and I happened to be open and scored the ball."
When Barbour entered the game with 14:43 left in the first half, the Dons found themselves down 10-4. After more erratic play on both ends of the floor, an Alicia Roberts 3-pointer put the Waves up 13-4.
Shortly after a USF timeout, Barbour went to work on the low block establishing good position offensively to get herself high percentage looks and taking up space defensively to help put up some resistance to Pepperdine's surprisingly effective drives to the basket.
"In the last couple of weeks - we talked about it too," Azzi commented after the game. "I said, 'Bailey...you can decide how to finish out your senior year. And we need you. So let's focus on finishing, let's focus on skill work, let's attack this next couple of weeks' and she has responded very, very well."
With nobody on Pepperdine's roster able to match her height or strength, Barbour's six quick points helped to turn the tide of the game before things got out of hand. By the time she left the game USF found themselves down only 17-13 and on the cusp of a run. From there the Dons were able to go back and forth with the Waves for the remainder of the half until a Mel Khlok 3-pointer put them ahead 29-27 at halftime despite shooting only 32.4% from the field and being beat on the boards despite having a size advantage with Barbour playing well.
"Because we came back early enough, then I think for them it was about losing a lead and...the momentum shifted to us and we were able to keep that," Azzi said, after chuckling a bit when asked whether she was surprised that they even had a halftime lead. "A little concerned at the end of the game there, but I thought Bailey had a great game. She hasn't played a ton of minutes this year and just came in and was a real strong presence for us."
With a little bit of momentum, or at least a fresh start, USF woke up in the second half led by a rejuvenated Khlok who looked like she had no intention of losing to a Pepperdine team that entered the game with only one win in WCC play entering the night, a win that came of the expense of the Dons in Malibu earlier this season.
"Winning at home is always best," said Khlok, who scored 13 of her game-high 23 points in the first half. "This is your home court - this is where you practice every single day. This is where you come to get your extra shots up. This is something that you're supposed to be doing - winning at home."
To the extent that it's possible to say it for a team that's well under .500, this was a game they were supposed to win even playing shorthanded against an opponent that had beaten them previously. They were clearly the better team on the night - which is not something you'd say for USF over the last few years - and were playing at home.
And the difference maker, both in shifting momentum and between the two meetings, was in large part exactly what Barbour brought to the floor: a post presence.
"I think just the whole week during practice we've been working on positioning in the post and a lot of counter moves and I think all that practice in the last week has really led up to what we did on the court today," Barbour opined when asked about the difference between the two games.
Perhaps it feels a bit late to the Dons faithful who have been looking for signs of improvement during the Azzi era, but Barbour displayed the type of aggression in the paint in her penultimate game at War Memorial Gym that made you wonder what whether USF could have picked up a few extra wins this season had they gotten that more consistently. It's not necessarily a hero's story, but in finding ways to extract that performance out of Barbour to get a significant fourth conference win - the most since the 2007-08 season - perhaps Thursday night's game was yet another sign of things starting to turn around for the program as a whole.
"If we can get another win in that would be fantastic," Azzi said when asked about the significance of winning today's Senior Day game against Loyola Marymount. "Already we're far ahead of a year ago as a program with 11 wins (overall). So we're progressing but of course we always want more. And I want more for our players and for our seniors."