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Washington’s Slim Victory is a Win for Seattle University, City-Wide Women’s Basketball

While some of the descriptions of last Wednesday’s “Battle in Seattle” game between Seattle University and the University of Washington described the environment at the Connolly Center as “hostile”, that’s not exactly how everyone would describe it.

“We had so much purple in the stands it was awesome,” said Washington guard Kristi Kingma, who ended up sealing the victory for the Huskies with three clutch threes down the stretch to take back the lead. “It almost kinda felt like a home game – as close as a road game can be. But yeah, it was great to have that atmosphere. It was almost like the Gonzaga game where it was like sold out – there weren’t as many people. But it was a good atmosphere and it really gets you pumped up as a player.”

Although Washington purple might actually have diminished SeattleU’s home court advantage in the Connolly Center, the buzz made for an exciting atmosphere that only intensified the sense of anticipation about the prospect of this really turning this annual game into a legitimate cross-town rivalry.

Everyone from staff to the dance team was dressed just a little bit more glamorous for the night as though the losing teams were playing for a championship. The capacity crowd of 1,050 speckled with Husky purple and Redhawk red created a friendly tension that made for as electric an atmosphere as there's been in the Connolly Center this year, for a men’s or women’s basketball game.

Occupying the same space as the fans were local basketball celebrities: Seattle Storm CEO Karen Bryant, Seattle University men’s basketball player and rising NBA prospect Charles Garcia, and former Storm player Sheryl Swoopes was also there apparently (though I didn’t see her).

Not only was the game the first sell out of the Seattle University women’s basketball season, but there were so many more media outlets there than usual that they had to add a set of media tables behind the visitor’s bench in addition to the standard midcourt table along the sideline just to accommodate everyone.

Although the attention was outstanding for a transitioning Division I program like SeattleU, minutes before the game I overheard one staff member at the scorers table half-jokingly, half-frantically-overwhelmed, say that it would be better for SeattleU to host the cross-town game at Key Arena next time because, as amazing as the atmosphere was, the cozy Connolly Center was overwhelmed.

The very fact that there’s enough interest in the game to even warrant consideration of a move to Key Arena in the future lends some credibility to the argument that the game meant something to Seattle beyond the standings.

As Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans wrote, it was not only a big game for these two programs, but a big game for women’s basketball in Seattle.

Womens Hoops Blog | Game thread: Washington at Seattle University | Seattle Times Newspaper

If anything depicts the possibility of women's basketball in the city, it's tonight's game between Washington and Seattle University. True, the Huskies and Redhawks played last year at Edmundson Pavilion, but tonight is the first with both officially being Division-I schools.

SU assistant coach Joy Hollingsworth, a native, likes to tell a story about how she attended a Redhawks camp as a youth and how it impacted her game -- going on to play college hoops at Arizona. UW and SU used to play each other regularly in 1980s and when you have that, you have young women thinking about athletics as a possibility. Picking a side on the playground courts and dreaming. It only increases the already solid development on the AAU level in the area.

Add the WNBA Storm, and what the Sonics had -- that boomed into more than a dozen local men playing in the NBA -- could happen for the women.

So it seems that "hostile" is not quite the way to describe the environment of this game. “Awesome” – in the sense that the anticipation of a budding rivalry was palpable – was the way that both Kingma and SeattleU forward Ashley Brown chose to describe it at different times after the game. As cliche as Kingma and Brown's choice of words were, they probably more closely approximated the experience of being there.

The buzz of excitement in the air before the game continued during the game as the Redhawks surprised everyone but themselves by not only hanging with the bigger Huskies, but taking a one point lead on a long Ashley Brown jumper with 12:26 left in the second half. Although the entire atmosphere and flow of the game might have been a pleasant surprise to most, it is the type of environment an experienced coach like Joan Bonvicini expects.

"That’s how it’s supposed to be," said Bonvicini. "And I really think as the program continues to grow, that’s how it’s going to be all the time. I think the people who haven’t seen us play before, I think they’ll come and watch. And you know, we’re building a program and this was a good game – not necessarily the way we wanted to finish – but I think there’s gonna be a lot of good games here and good finishes here for the future."

Ultimately, that atmosphere and the step the SeattleU program took toward the future was the most compelling story of that game, regardless of the outcome.

While the pressure was on UW to flex their Pac-10 muscles against a smaller school, it was a much bigger opportunity for SeattleU to establish themselves as legitimate Division I competition, at least within Seattle's city limits. It was a major occasion for SeatleU women's basketball -- and perhaps for the school's transition to Division I as a whole -- and the team rose to the occasion against a bigger UW team.

For one night at least, it was the rapidly improving play of a loser building for a future in one of the best women's basketball cities in the nation that was the far more captivating story that managed to be more compelling than the performance of the winner.

Contrasting identities

Although Washington coach Tia Jackson has been the one preaching about the need for the Huskies to (re)claim their identity all season, the Huskies began the game unfocused, with top producers Regina Rogers and Sami Whitcomb combining to go 1-10 from the field in the first half as SeattleU keyed in on Whitcomb and doubled down on Rogers. Whether that be from underestimating SeattleU or the pressure of facing a cross-town rival, it was a source of disappointment for Jackson as well as the players.

"Like coach J said, we just weren't quite as focused, I think," said Washington senior wing Sami Whitcomb, who went 1-7 in the first half. "I don't know if it's the rivalry or- I'd hate to think we underestimated them; we know a lot of them and we know what they're capable of. I think coming into the game maybe we just got a little overconfident early on and then they got hot and we just had to pick it up."

Conversely, it was SeattleU that demonstrated a more stable sense of self and their objectives, despite obvious limitations and disadvantages.

That's not to say that the Redhawks deserved to win -- the Huskies' size inside and superior talent around the perimeter was ultimately able to carry them to victory despite a lackadaisical effort. However, SeattleU never seemed to worry about UW's obvious height advantage, instead drawing security from their ability to execute their game plan rather than worrying about the opponent.

"We’re used to it now – all 11 games we’ve been in we’ve been the undersized team," said point guard Cassidy Murillo. "And so there’s no excuse for it anymore – we just have to work through it."

While there were multiple plays that embodied SeattleU’s determined effort to win a game that most people assumed out of reach, one play stands out as the most representative case.

With a little more than 13 minutes left in the first half, SeattleU forward Maggie McCarthy got the ball on the left wing, made one of her typically fearless drives into the middle of the paint and pulled up as 6’3" Regina Rogers and 6’2" Mollie Williams jumped with outstretched arms to challenge her shot. Undeterred, McCarthy banked a short jumper high and hard off the glass to bring the Redhawks within one point, before Brown’s jumper put them ahead a minute later.

McCarthy’s shot was the beginning of a brief 6-2 run that made the possibility of an upset seem even more real, before Washington guard Kristi Kingma hit the first of three three-point shots down the stretch to give the Huskies an advantage the Redhawks were not able to overcome. However, what makes the play notable – as well as the image above – is that it is a moment that probably best represents the attitude that SeattleU brings to the court every night.

McCarthy didn’t seem to care that she was giving up 5 inches to Washington’s front line at that moment. In terms of difficulty, the shot from the middle of the key -- though short -- is a much more difficult shot than it looks, which takes a combination of accuracy, strength, touch (which is why so many youth basketball camps used the bank shot from the middle of the key as the basis of a shooting contest). All that mattered to McCarthy – and occasionally to a fault during the course of the game (she had six turnovers) – was the primary objective of putting the ball in the basket.

Plays like that McCarthy's make it hard not to root for a team like SeattleU – a team that is aware of its limited fate, but plays with a sense of unlimited possibility.

"I'm very, very proud of our team," said Bonvicini. "I thought we battled, we showed a great deal of heart, we showed a lot of mental toughness and we were there -- we had a chance to win the game."

While McCarthy's play might best embody the fighting spirit of the SeattleU women’s basketball this season, it was the all-around performance of Murillo that seemed to embody the fight and determination of the Redhawks, single-handedly letting the Huskies know that this would not be the easy victory that some assumed it would be.

At game's end, Murillo was by far the most productive player on the court for either team.

Murillo finished with a game high 7 assists to go along with 16 points on 6-9 shooting, including going 3-3 from the three point range. Although she ranks among the best three point shooters in SeattleU history (she started the season third in three point percentage and tied for fourth in three pointers made all-time), she started the season off target shooting 21.05% on 8-38 three point shooting prior to Wednesday's game.

While she maintained her ability to see the court and make plays for others even without her shot, finding her touch in this game was critical to her playing with an increased assertiveness and helping to will her team to the brink of one of the nation’s biggest upsets this season.

"Well I just took the open shots when they were there and luckily they finally went in," said Murillo. "So you know once I hit a couple— it just keeps building – and I was still looking for my teammates, just doing what I do: pass and shoot when I’m open."

However, beyond the boxscore, Murillo ran the team masterfully, barking out orders, calling to her teammates to shoulder the burden of handling the ball against the UW’s press, attacking the basket when she saw a hole, and patiently waiting for the right moment to whip a pinpoint pass through those fleeting creases in the defense that so many players miss. She did everything you want a coach would want a point guard to do in one of the team’s biggest games of the season.

"Well I think Cassidy was just great leadership on the floor -- smart," said Bonvicini. "I think this was probably the best game since I've coached her. [She] just ran the team. You know, she played like a senior and a senior who wanted to win."

By almost any standard of point guard performance, Murillo was by far the best point guard on the court demonstrating that she cannot only keep up with Pac-10 point guards, but that she belongs.

Yet one would never know it from her demeanor in the media room. She is confidently soft spoken while exuding an intense passion for the game as she gives one of her characteristically concise and direct descriptions of the game. That calm determination defines both her demeanor off the court and the way she plays her position at every moment of the game -- even in the final seconds of a tight game against a bigger Pac-10 team.

"At the end of a game you can’t think about being tired, ever," said Murillo, making the possibility of succumbing to pressure seem absurd. "We were out there like, 'one minute of hard defense' and it doesn’t matter the 37 minutes we already played – like, there’s one minute left."

But the fact that she plays with such determination as a senior on a team whose de jure chances at playing in the post-season are limited by the terms of the school’s transition to Division I and whose de facto chances at even establishing themselves as a tournament caliber team are limited by the reality of adjusting to the level of competition is extremely impressive.

None of this is to cast Murillo as a next level athlete or even suggest that SeattleU has the talent to compete with Pac-10 teams over the course of a season. Yet what makes Murillo impressive as the embodiment of a scrappy SeattleU team is that she plays despite the odds and expects to win every time she steps on the floor, win or lose. Not only does she expect it, but she shows it through the way she plays the game.

Murillo is the type of player that women’s basketball fans who make claims of "purity" imagine, on a rapidly cohering team that is playing for the sake of its future rather than racking up wins in the present.

A game to build on

Obviously, the primary mission of this game for SeattleU -- like any game -- was to win, not to merely play hard without results.

However, another aim for SeattleU is to improve and acclimate themselves to Division I competition. Without a doubt, they will be the underdog and it's a status they're embracing.

"I feel like we’re the underdog when we go into any game and so I think that is on our side so we can kinda surprise people because we work really hard," said Brown. "I thought they worked hard as well too, but I think we came out and showed them that we’re here."

While there is certainly value in proving oneself to others, the game also gives the team confidence in themselves, helping them get a better sense of where they stand relative to others. Whether that constitutes the beginning rivalry will bear out over time, but for now they've proven they can fight.

"We were in there," said Bonvicini. "You know, I said it’s not a rivalry until you win, but we’re going to battle here. And you know this is a game that although we lost we can take a lot of things and build on it for the remainder of the season."

With homes game against St. Mary's University tonight and Evergreen State University tomorrow, they'll have a chance to continue that building process soon.

Related Links:

Women's Hoops Outlasts Seattle University To Escape With Another Road Victory

UW women defeat Seattle U., 58-53

Battle in Seattle Reaction: A Win is a Win...?

Transition Points:

  • Freshman Carley Butcher suffered an ACL injury in the first half and is out for the season.
  • Kristi Kingma did not practice the day prior to the game and had ice on her ankle while giving her post-game interview. She said she was about 90%.
  • Interesting game stat: SeattleU had an assist to field goal ratio of 90% in the first half, making 9 assists on 10 made shots compared to Washington's 38.46%.
  • As mentioned above, Murillo entered the season as one of the Redhawks best three point shooters of all time. Her career three point percentage of 41.7% ranked her third all-time and her 134 three pointers made was tied for fourth all-time. With 11 three pointers made already this season, Murillo has moved into third all-time with 145 threes just behind Jessie DeLauney (1998-2002) who had 153 threes (and also holds the mark for most three pointers attempted with 527, a list on which Murillo is not in the top ten). Even with her early season struggles, Murillo has a legitimate shot to end her career as the top three point shooter in SeattleU history -- the leader, Ashley Payne (2003-2007), had 168 threes
  • Shout out to Jayda Evans who tried to save me a seat in my normal spot along the sideline -- another Seattle Times reporter was showing up for the first time this season.
  • Next up for SeattleU is a game against St. Mary's College -- a team with the third highest RPI of the teams they've faced thus far -- tonight at 7pm in the Connolly Center. Once again, the Gaels are a larger team with a strong post player. Perhaps the difference is that the Gaels' post player is a dominant defensive player, according to the report from Frisco Del Rosario.
    frdelrosario: St. Mary's College 83, Boise State 72

    The Gaels were led by 20 points Saturday from WCC player of the week Jontelle Smith, plus 17 points, 15 blocked shots, and nine rebounds from Louella Tomlinson of Melbourne, Australia. SMC led 36-35 at half, and 46-45 with 16:22 remaining, but their defense triggered a 6-0 run — a block and a defensive rebound by Tomlinson before a layup by Alex Carbonel, then a steal plus a layup by Ja. Smith.