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"Striving for Perfection": Thomas Expecting More from WCC November Player of the Month Louella Tomlinson

Saint Mary’s College coach Paul Thomas and I decided to stand on the court to chat, away from the murmur of players mingling with family and friends after SMC's 63-56 victory over Seattle University in the Connolly Center on Monday night.

Seconds after Thomas got done explaining how West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Week and November Player of the Month Louella Tomlinson is "not there yet", Seattle University coach Joan Bonvicini walked by after a radio interview just in time to hear Thomas heaping high praise on 6’1" SeattleU center Tatiana Heck.

"I’ll tell Joan: that’s the kid, that’s probably done the best job against Lou other than the All-American from Nebraska [6’2" center Kelsey Griffin]," said Thomas referring to Heck’s 15 point, 5 rebound performance on 7-13 shooting.

"She didn’t do a very good job second half," said a frustrated Bonvicini, restlessly stopping for a moment before continuing on to chat with someone else.

"Well it’s hard to shoot over those gangly arms," responded Thomas with a playfully optimistic tone, referring to the 6’4" Tomlinson’s arms that had just recorded 6 blocks.

While the coaches' critical comments of their own players could be interpreted negatively, it also demonstrates the high expectations they each hold for every one of their players, star or role player.

As a teacher and former youth coach, talking to college coaches is an opportunity to not only hear how they talk with their players but also listen to them talk about their players and their philosophies about how to get their "students" to meet their "instructional goals". Often times, that’s not "merely" winning, but "striving for perfection", as Scotter described University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma's approach to coaching his top-ranked team.

As an educator, I read Auriemma's statement as less an obsession with perfect outcomes, than a focus on incrementally perfecting the process by which a class or team might achieve those outcomes. Ultimately, it comes down to the cliché idea that good teachers and good coaches strive to "bring out the best" performance of those who follow their lead.

While we often hear coaches claim the preseason is all about preparation for conference play, at no time was the focus on striving for perfection -- independent of winning and losing – more evident or familiar to me than during that exchange. Neither one of these coaches expects their teams to win a NCAA championship in the way Auriemma might. However, they do expect their players to compete every night.

Despite both coaches lamenting their players’ flaws games, it was the post play that ended up dictating the flow of the game. While Tomlinson’s second half performance helped SMC to victory, Heck’s assertiveness on the block was the key in the first half.

SeattleU Women's Basketball Unable to Outlast Saint Mary's - Seattle University Redhawks Athletics
SU center Tatiana Heck (Mountlake Terrace, Wash.) had a standout game for the Redhawks, scoring 15 points and leading the team with five boards. She battled all night long against reigning WCC Player of the Month Louella Tomlinson. The SMC 6-4 forward was unable to get in a rhythm for in the first half, as she was held to only seven points and three rebounds.

"We opened up in the first half and we made some shots and kinda stopped them from doubling her but as soon as we started missing shots, I mean, they were clamping down hard on her and we were missing," said Thomas.

As a result of the Redhawks’ pressure, Tomlinson was relegated to a passer – receiving the ball in the post and quickly looking for an open shooter on the perimeter. However, the problem was not necessarily poor shooting but turnovers – while the Gaels shot 52.2% in the first half, they had 13 turnovers for a turnover rate of nearly 40%. While their shooting percentage fell to 36% in the second half, their turnover rate also fell to about 24%.

In addition, instead of relying on perimeter shots in the second half, they found a way to get to the free throw line – they more than doubled their free throw rate from 17.4% to 36.7%. A large part of that was Tomlinson.

In the second half, Tomlinson went 4-9 from the field for 10 points and had 4 blocks, looking both more assertive and comfortable in the post. With a performance like Monday night’s after a Saturday’s 17 rebound, 15 block performance against Boise State University, it’s reasonable for fans who have followed her development to focus on the positives. However, as a coach who is trying to get the best out of his team, Thomas has the end in mind.

"Uh…um…you know…," said Thomas, pausing and looking away for a moment to choose his words carefully. "I’m really happy for Lou and I’ve just had two sets of parents that have seen her a couple of years ago say how much she’s improved. So I’m really pleased with her development and she’s maturing into the player that we all think she can be. But to be quite honest with you I don’t think she’s there yet."

The unevenness in performance not just between games but within games that Tomlinson exhibited Monday night is part of what causes concern for Thomas.

Getting There

Against a smaller team like SeattleU, it was surprising to see Tomlinson allow the shorter Heck score 11 points on 5-7 seven shooting and drawing three shooting fouls that resulted in four free throws for Heck, but also the lack of intensity on the boards and on the block offensively.

"She only had one offensive rebound and I got on her at half and then she only ended up with one offensive rebound," said Thomas. "I think she could be more active on the boards. I think she could get to the free throw line a little bit more. But don’t get me wrong, she’s our player and I love her to death and she’s really good."

Offensively, Tomlinson didn’t have any offensive rebounds in the first half and didn’t have her only lone offensive board of the game until 1:49 left in the second half, a key play that led to a layup that put SMC up by 3 points. All three of her free throw attempts came in the second half with two of them coming on an intentional foul with SeattleU down 5. In other words, although she has improved, Tomlinson appears to be relying heavily on her height advantage rather than the type of energy that results in free throws and offensive rebounds.

Defensively, relying heavily on her height is what helped the second half turnaround. The battle against Heck is a perfect example: in the first half, Heck beat Tomlinson on the block primarily by getting her off balance with a set of pump fakes and strength. In the second half, Tomlinson instead held her ground bothering Heck’s shot simply by raising her arms. Most of Tomlinson’s four second half blocks came that way, barely even leaving the ground but leveraging her height against an undersized SeattleU team.

That Heck went 2-6 for 4 points in the second half after an 11 point first half and finished with 6 turnovers for the game is partially a testament to Tomlinson’s defense. With Heck rendered ineffective, forward Ashley Brown was also affected on the perimeter. Although Brown finished as arguably the top performer for her team (15 points and 4 steals), she went 0-6 from the field in the second half, included 0-5 from the three point line. Her threes were suddenly contested making her scoring more difficult.

Bonvicini Looking for WIns

While Bonvicini was critical of Heck in passing, she was much more positive the last night after SeattleU’s 82-51 victory over Evergreen State College.

"She’s an undersized post but she’s strong and she’s smart and she’s very coachable," said Bonvicini after Heck scored 21 points on 8-16 shooting and grabbed 6 rebounds against an overwhelmed ESC. "We want her to [score on the block] plus be able to square up and read and you know, she’s getting a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident and I think the last two games have really helped a lot."

As an undersized team that just lost backup center Carley Butcher for the season due to an ACL injury, the team will need to rely heavily on Heck to give them a post presence. And given what she’s up against, it’s easy to see how players like Heck embody the spirit of this SeattleU team.

"I mean, I think SeattleU just made us work for everything," said Thomas. "You know, they played a great zone defense – we’re used to scoring a little more freely than that and they held us in check. But I’m pretty happy with our kids because they toughed it out… I think you need all those experiences to go forward. But I would say Joan thinks the same thing – I would like to think she’s pretty proud of her team. I think we’re a tough team to defend because we have a lot of people who can shoot the basketball and I think they did a great job."

As they embark upon a four game road trip against Oregon State University, Boise State University, Cal Poly, and Loyola Marymount University, they will have to keep up the type of tough play they showed against SMC and cross-town "rival" University of Washington last week. That starts with demanding excellence of each other in practice.

"We gotta keep our intensity level very high, we have to play hard," said Heck after the ESC game. "That’s one of our main focuses – we have to play hard against each other. We have to make each other better."

Although Tomlinson heaped plenty of praise on SeattleU and the intense play that has come to define them as a team, at some point the process has to yield results to build confidence in the little things that a team does game to game, whether it be a grind it out game or a blow out. According to Bonvicini, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a team ranked in the top 100 or a Division II team – wins help give teams the confidence to continue that pursuit of perfection.

"Winning is – a lot of it is – the confidence and it’s a mentality and so we’re getting there," said Bonvicini after last night’s win. "We just need to win right now."

Click here for a photo gallery from SeattleU's win over Evergreen State.

Transition Points

  • While Heck’s career-high 21 points grabbed the headline on the SeattleU website for last night’s win against Evergreen State and Brown’s 19 points and 7 rebounds stands out in the boxscore, point guard Cassidy Murillo was again one of the top performers in the game. While Murillo only had 9 points, she shot an efficient 3-6 from the field (all three-pointers), had 7 assists, 0 turnovers, and 7 rebounds. Murillo may not stand out as the flashiest player, she’s clearly one of the team’s most significant players.
  • Guard Elle Kerfoot saw her first action of the season after being ruled ineligible for a violation of NCAA rules. Although Kerfoot struggled against SMC with 4 points on 2-8 shooting and 4 turnovers, she came back strong against Evergreen State with 15 points on 5-7 shooting, including 3-3 from the three point line.

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    SeattleU guard Elle Kerfoot. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com.

  • Bonvicini said after the Evergreen State game last night that they're hoping to know "soon" whether they will get their other two players out on suspension -- Breanna Salley and Mercedes Alexander -- back "sometime after Christmas." 
  • A few years ago at a conference I heard ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath describe the similarities and differences between how youth sports coaches and teachers engage in "instructional talk" – the best of both are generally authoritative, rather than authoritarian, setting high expectations for students and high demands for the process of meeting those expectations.