2014 WCC Tournament preview: Jennifer Azzi's San Francisco Dons finding 'the will to win' in rebuilding process

USF star forward Taylor Proctor makes a pass against Santa Clara with head coach Jennifer Azzi looking on. - Photo courtesy of USF Athletics.

Jennifer Azzi's San Francisco Dons will begin the 2014 WCC Tournament today (2 p.m. PST, BYUtv) having won consecutive conference games and facing a LMU team that they've already beaten two times this season, including a dramatic win just last Saturday. But win or lose, this season has already been the best of Azzi's tenure.

For the last five seasons, the San Francisco Dons' season has ended with a loss to Loyola Marymount either in the regular season or WCC conference tournament

Last season, LMU managed to spoil both the regular season senior day finale and what had the makings of a gutsy run in the 2013 WCC Tournament. For whatever it's worth, you have to go back all the way to 2003 to find a season where they entered the conference's tournament having won their annual pair of regular season finale games against LMU and Pepperdine - at a time when teams are looking to peak, the normal thing to do at USF is to fall flat.

Change has been a long time coming on the Hilltop, but just finishing the season strong is a step forward for this program.


Jennifer Azzi's video feature as part of USF's "Teacher" series (video via USFDonsAthletics).

"Try to celebrate the milestones here, but at the same time I want to keep looking forward," head coach Jennifer Azzi commented matter-of-factly after their dramatic 80-79 win over LMU on Saturday. "I guess just all of our minds are going to be on Thursday."

As Azzi has pointed out many times in the past when discussing the Dons' rebuilding process, the program's plight long pre-dates her four-year tenure.

You have to go back to the turn of the century to find a time when the team made any post-season tournament and journey all the way back to 1997 to find a time when making the NCAA Tournament was a reasonable expectation. It's certainly not the most beleaguered program - even on the west coast - but rarely is the inertia of a losing culture broken by giant leaps instead of baby steps.

Only 445 fans, some of which were clearly there to support LMU's Bay Area products Shelbi Aimonetti and Sophie Taylor, witnessed what has to be considered a milestone in USF's program history at War Memorial Gym this past Saturday. Neither players nor coaches were terribly eager to discuss it before or after the game with the team obviously having bigger goals, which makes sense as they were aiming for bigger things in the 2014 WCC Tournament - six wins in conference play isn't exactly a lot to celebrate.

"We're not focused on the record - I think we're focused on more possession-to-possession during the game and game-by-game," sophomore forward Taylor Proctor said after after last Thursday's 75-61 win over Pepperdine. "I think that, yes, it's a big win for us, but we have another win that we have to get [to get the seventh seed] in the (WCC) tournament."

The Dons entered their final home stand of the season coming off of a four-game losing streak, which included losses to three of the top five teams in the conference. To even dream of earning a bid in one of the lesser national post-season tournaments, they needed to regroup for a strong showing in the WCC Tournament.

We're going into it focused not so much on the result as on the process and playing together.-USF assistant coach Molly Marrin on their regular season finale against LMU.

Consecutive wins in last week's games paired with consecutive losses from Santa Clara (against the same opponents) would've given USF the seventh seed in the tournament, leaving them safely on the opposite side of the bracket from perennial WCC powerhouse Gonzaga where there might have been some hope of putting together consecutive conference tournament wins for the first time since winning it for a third time in a row in 1997.

Long story short, the team had more immediate things to focus on than somewhat arbitrary historical milestones.

"We're not talking about the significance of the standings or the games," assistant coach Molly Marrin commented when asked if she realized the significance of even getting to five games. "Just anything (to do) with our girls."

Nevertheless, in evaluating whether Azzi and her staff are making progress in their rebuilding journey, going 6-12 in conference play is still an encouraging sign: six wins is the most they've had in conference play since the 2004-05 season. That bright spot after years of cellar-dwelling does come with the caveat that USF also had less games to play in what was an eight-team conference in 2005, but even adjusting for the current 10-team conference USF's winning percentage of .333 this season is the highest since 2007-08 season when they went 5-9 in conference.

Yet undergoing a culture change is less about wins and losses than how a team arrives at results, which has to be the most important takeaway from their stretch run in conference play.

"We're going into it focused not so much on the result as on the process and playing together," Marrin said when asked about their regular season finale against LMU after the Pepperdine game. "So tonight we showed a lot more energy and a lot more communication than we've shown this season and so that's the things we're talking about in the locker room."


Read more on senior Alexa Hardick's career of perseverance that came to an end vs. LMU (Video via USFDonsAthletics).

That USF's sixth win required a total team effort down to the last second was a testament to how far they've come in the Azzi era.

With just 25 seconds left and the game tied, sophomore guard Zhane Dikes dribbled the clock down to about the 10 second mark when she made her move to the basket. Driving hard to the right block, Dikes missed a contested layup attempt. But junior guard Taj Winston flew in unchecked for the offensive rebound and last-second put-back for what would becoming the game-winning shot.

"Pretty much it was for me to come around to the (strong side) block, no screen, and look for that post-up," said Winston, who finished the game with 14 points and five rebounds, her lone offensive rebound being the biggest. "But Zhane had the ball and she took it so I'm good with that - that was good enough."

Both Azzi and LMU coach Charity Elliot agreed that there was confusion about a timeout that Elliot was trying to call from the opposite side of the court that was drowned out by crowd noise, which might explain why USF's players ran out on the court to celebrate before time was up - an indiscretion that made for some late-game dramatics before sealing the win, as already captured in the recap at USFDons.com.

Perhaps hat's the kind of thing that happens when you're not used to winning; with the win safely in hand, the lingering sentiment from Azzi after the game was how they carried themselves on the court for that final possession.

"At that point in a game, that's the will to win," Azzi commented after the win. "That's just like, 'I'm gonna get the ball'. And I told them after the game that that's what we have to have from the tip."

At this time for this program, even beating last-place Pepperdine in a game that was not as close as the final score suggests and then hanging on to beat ninth-place LMU are signs of progress.

Last season, it was USF's inability to sweep of last place Pepperdine (who they turned around blew out by 32 in the conference tourney) and beat LMU on senior day that prevented them from reaching the five win mark in the regular season. This season they swept their final home stand of the season to complete season sweeps of both for the first time in years. They gave BYU a run before Jennifer Hamson absolutely took over offensively in the second half after dominating defensively in the first half.

Yet as promising as the end of their season was, there's plenty of room for improvement as well.

One of the games during that four-game losing streak prior to their final home stand was a one-point loss at home to Santa Clara on February 15 that they really should've won. But nearly "10 minutes of scorelessnes", as phrased in the recap at USFDons.com, cost them a double-digit first half lead. In the second half, Santa Clara shot 60.9% from the field and 11-for-12 shoot from the free throw line, which ultimately did the Dons on top of 47% three point shooting from the visitors.

And those poor defensive numbers against Santa Clara reflect a persistent problem for the Dons throughout the season: defense.

"We have to start playing better defense because we've been struggling on defense a little guarding penetration and guarding the three point line," said Winston, who was also USF's nominee for post-season defensive honors. "But that's going to be the biggest key going into the tournament: stopping those two things pretty much."

USF's guards struggled to stay with Pepperdine's star guards Allie Green and Ea Shoushtari, who only combined for 25 points on 10-for-23 shooting but got almost any open shot they wanted - fortunately, Pepperdine happens to have the lowest shooting percentages in the conference, like in part because they rely so heavily on jumpers. Nevertheless, in the final minute against the Waves, the Dons' seemingly safe lead dwindled to just nine points with 44 seconds left before Azzi pulled her reserves and re-inserted the starters to close out the game (what should've been) a comfortable 14-point win.

Against LMU, USF couldn't seem to guard ball handlers without fouling. When they weren't committing fouls, they were giving Lions players free runs at the rim. Far too often, defensive possessions that did result in a missed shot were negated by offensive rebounds: after allowing just four in the first half - two on one possession - the Dons gave up six in the first 12 minutes of the second half.

"It's challenging I think for both teams, especially with athleticism, because you can't touch anybody," Azzi said referring to the NCAA's new rules this season after allowing LMU to shoot 54.5% in the first half on Saturday. "So it does make for less defense, I think, in general. But we've got to find a way to defend within those rules because they're still getting open threes and things that really have nothing to do with that."

Their defensive statistics reflect what both Azzi, Marrin, and Winston discussed regarding the team's continued struggles to stop even the lowest-rated offenses in the conference.

USF finished the season with the lowest defensive rating in the WCC (1.014 points per possession), according to WBB State. One glaring problem was that the Dons allowed their opponents to shoot a conference-high 35.9% from the three point line, a by-product of their inability to prevent guard penetration in man defense or rotate out to shooters quickly enough in zone sets.

Winston neatly summarized all of USF's defensive struggles when discussing the defensive "adjustments" they made at halftime of the LMU game.

"Stop Lopez, stop Ramirez, and stop Johnson," Winston rattled off when asked about what they needed correct. "I mean they were killing us - that was pretty much the game plan. Stop them, stop the threes and trying to shut 'em down the best that we can."

When your defensive weakness essentially amount to "everything", you can't reasonably expect to fix them before the conference tournament - that's just more reason to remain focused on a future that has reasons for optimism.

Bay Area native Rachel Howard was selected to the 2014 All-WCC Freshman Team after finishing the season third among all WCC freshmen in scoring (9.1 PPG). Although defense is still a work-in-progress for her as it is for many of her teammates, she has shown the scoring instincts with the ball in her hands to become a contributor down the road.

"In the beginning she was hitting shot after shot," Proctor said, referring to Howard's performance in non-conference play in which she shot 41.4% from the three point line in November. "So I think coming into conference people started getting to know the personnel and everything like that. But I think she's doing a great job of finishing her play, distributing the ball - she's really stepped up this year and I'm really proud of her."

With Howard as well as 2013 All-WCC Freshman Team selections Zhane Dikes and Taylor Proctor, USF has a core of solid talent to work with for the next couple of years. But Proctor who has emerged as the team's go-to option this season.

In the disappointing loss to Santa Clara, Proctor scored 16 of her game-high 27 points (on 10-for-16 shooting from the field) in the first seven minutes of the game. In the regular season finale against LMU, she recorded team-highs of 19 points and 12 rebounds for a third straight game with a double-double. Although she was only 4-for-14 in the win against Pepperdine, it still wasn't hard to see her impact on the game - when her teammates finally decided to throw the ball to her in the post, she once again looked like the most dominant player on the floor.

Despite USF's record, Proctor had a strong case for making the WCC All-Conference team; it's hard to imagine her missing too many more of those selections in the future.

"When she gets rebounds, she gets assists - Taylor poses..a matchup nightmare," Marrin said when asked about Proctor. "I think that's her biggest asset: is that teams, their post players, she can post you up; she can drive, has good foot speed. She makes reads very well. So she just needs to continue to grow to where she can get more touches and figure out where she can get the best shots to take and continue to keep her game very diversified and she'll just continue to get better.

"She works very hard: she's the first to come into the gym and the last to leave, all the time. So I have no doubt that she'll continue to grow as a player."

Even with continued growth from their top players, this isn't a team that can realistically hold NCAA tournament hopes now or even in the near future, barring an incredible turn of events. But it's not hard to see that the pieces are starting to fall into place as the talent on the roster grows while Azzi grows as a coach.

Every little victory counts for this program.

"To see that kind of love and excitement, that matters," Azzi said, managing to find a silver lining from her bench picking up a technical for running onto the court to celebrate a victory they hadn't quite secured.

It's very likely that all of this will pass without much recognition: even if USF is able to beat LMU for a third time this season, beating Gonzaga for a first time still feels like an insurmountable challenge for this growing program. After finishing eighth in the conference for the second consecutive season, the most likely outcome is probably another single tournament win against one of the conference's bottom-feeders.

The highlight of the Azzi era thus far is without question beating BYU in Provo back in 2012, easily one of the biggest upsets of that season and definitely among the biggest in the last few decades of USF program history. Yet it's these small successes, showing "the will to win" against LMU and Pepperdine, that occur outside the scope of the national spotlight that truly reveal an upward trajectory for the program.

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