Seattle University junior guard Elle Kerfoot was as surprised as anyone by just how well the Redhawks shot in the second half of the Redhawks' 66-56 win over Montana State last night.
"That's a first," said Kerfoot, with a pleasantly surprised chuckle when informed that they shot 51.7% in the second half of their first game in the Seattle U Thanksgiving Tournament. "I think against their zone, we had a lot of open looks against the perimeter so we had to keep shooting in order to spread out that zone. So as we kept building on the lead, we had to make shots."
And indeed, given that the team has been shooting under 30% from the field and beyond the arc this season, that they managed to shoot well enough to bust MSU's zone is something of a watershed moment for the progress of this team this season. In fact, this first win of the 2010-11 season might have been the best half of the best game of Redhawks coach Joan Bonvicini's career in Seattle.
"It was the first complete game since I've been here," said Bonvicini, agreeing that this was arguably the best game they've played in her tenure in Seattle. "We're still getting there - we're a work in progress - but I saw a much, much improved [team], hard-working, good decision making. It was a very, very, good game start to finish for us."
Just putting together a complete game is definitely a sign of progress for the Redhawks. Although there might have been some concern about how well this team would perform in Bonvicini's second year with the graduation of last year's team leaders in three point specialist Ashley Brown and point guard Cassidy Murrillo - whose court vision was as good as any point guard you'll see - last night's game is evidence that the former Pac-10 coach has added plenty of talent and is looking forward to bringing in more. As she said about this year's team, the program is a work in progress and each win reinforces that which they're doing well.
"There are no shortcuts to success - I mean, you gotta have talent - but I think it's that extra work you put in because you know when you put in that extra work you're going to be confident," said Bonvicini. "So I'm just really proud of our team."
However, lest we overstate the completeness of the game, it's worth noting that their shooting performance was certainly not pretty for the whole game - the logical thing to do against a team that had been shooting a paltry 23% from three point land prior to last night's game is to throw a zone at them and force them to beat it and that's exactly what MSU did in the first half. And there's no debating that it worked - despite heading into halftime with a 24-19 lead, the Redhawks shot 2-17 from beyond the arc and missed 13 in a row. And it was Washington State transfer Salena Dickerson, who had to redshirt last season due to NCAA policy, who continually helped the Redhawks find scoring opportunities throughout the game.
Key player: Salena Dickerson
Consistent with the team's first half shooting struggles, Dickerson was only 1-6 from the field in the first half. However, her ability to find ways to create scoring opportunities in the first half was crucial to the Redhawks going into the locker room with a 5 point lead.
When MSU was still playing a man-to-man defense, Bonvicini could be heard yelling, "Take her!" because the Redhawks seemed to holding the ball too long in one-on-one situations in transition or on the wing in the half court and passing on opportunities to attack the basket. And despite her shooting struggles in the first half, it was Dickerson who ended up being the most aggressive, taking the ball to the rim to get to the line and aggressively crashing the offensive glass to contribute to the Redhawks 13-3 first half advantage in second chance points.
Whereas in the first half her aggression around the basket was crucial, in the second half she found her touch and hit a variety of jumpers, layups, and her lone three pointer. Her first half aggression helped her to a team-high 50% free throw rate and her second half shooting to a 54.64% true shooting percentage. That's not to mention her three offensive rebounds from the first half. She finished with a team-high tying 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals.
However, in addition to Dickerson's aggression going to the basket, the Redhawks were helped immensely by strong ball movement and not just from their perimeter players.
Redhawks statistical MVP: Tatiana Heck
A primary reason why the Redhawks were able to shoot the ball so much better in the second half is that they shared it much better instead of relying so heavily on second chance and transition points. And rather than being the result of dynamic point guard play as one might first assume, it was simply more evidence that this team is starting to develop the chemistry that they seemed to lack for most of this season and throughout last season.
"I really told the team, 'We need to get more assists' and getting good assists is not just about being unselfish, it's understanding where your teammates are going to be," said Bonvicini. "So I thought we did a much better job tonight - we are an unselfish team - but now they're really starting to understand where their other teammates are and they're really starting to play together. It feels good."
When MSU switched to zone in the first half, you could hear Bonvicini changing her tune a bit and yelling, "Reverse! Reverse!" because again, they were holding the ball around the perimeter and letting the Bobcats sit in their zone without putting forth much defensive effort. So the second half shooting is definitely a result of the message seeming to sink in, which contributed quite a bit to breaking the zone - in the second half, the Redhawks created 11 of their 16 total assists on the game and had a strong synergy rating of 1.39, which is something that will have to continue
But with Kerfoot and transfer sophomore point guard Daidra Brown combining for one assist (Brown's) in the first half, it was senior center Tatiana Heck that actually helped the team find any sort of offensive synergy - Heck had three of her team-high tying assists in the first half on the strength of interior passing to both sophomore reserve forward Carley Butcher and freshman starting forward Kacie Sowell.
Heck finished the game with a team-high assist ratio of 33.67% compared to a turnover ratio of 8.41% - clearly impressive for any post player - in addition to her 8 points and team-high tying 7 rebounds.
Key statistic: turnover percentage
Yet although the Redhawks second half offensive performance was impressive, perhaps the more significant factor throughout the game was the Redhawks' ability to force the Bobcats into turnovers on 27% of their possessions. It's difficult to beat any team while turning the ball over that often and it's even more difficult with the Redhawks only turning it over on 16% of their possessions, well under their typical rate.
"I thought it was really good," said Dickerson, when asked about the team's defensive effort. "I thought we did a really good job playing together on defense - help defense - and we did a really good job having each other's back."
Although MSU actually won the points off turnovers differential 11-8, the Redhawks defensive intensity had a particularly strong effect on MSU point guard Katie Bussey who committed three of her four turnovers in the second half to go along with her team-high 15 points. With Bussey clearly bothered by Redhawks pressure, it made it difficult for MSU to find a rhythm despite improved scoring percentages overall.
Nevertheless, despite all the positives the Redhawks can take from the game, one area of improvement Bonvicini identified was rebounding, as the Bobcats beat them on the boards with an offensive rebounding percentage of 37% to 19% in the second half. Their biggest problem was stopping Bobcats forward Sarah Balian on the boards throughout the game.
Montana State statistical MVP: Sarah Balian
For all of their focus on stopping Lyndi Seidensticker and forcing Bussey into turnovers, the Redhawks struggled on the boards in the second half, which was a familiar story from last season and perhaps the one thing Bonvicini would want to correct about last night's game.
"Obviously we need to rebound better but we gave good assists, we took care of the ball," said Bonvicini.
At 6'1", Balian wasn't the type of imposing physical force that would give Seattle U fits last season, but her positioning and instincts helped her to a game-high 15 rebounds, including impressive percentages: a team-high 22.25% offensive rebounding percentage and a game-high 25.43% defensive rebounding percentage. Bobcats rebounding overall helped them stay in the game in the second half with a 9-2 differential in second chance points.
Today's consolation game preview: 6 p.m. PST - MSU vs. Arkansas - Little Rock
Despite a second half rebounding performance against Seattle U, MSU will unquestionably have to take better care of the ball against a very aggressive UALR defense that posed a challenge to a strong Bowling Green team. Seattle U was able to contain both Bussey and Seidensticker on the perimeter and UALR showed much more aggressive defense last night.
"They're a very good three point shooting team and I thought we did a very nice job tonight," said Bonvicini. "Seidensticker is a very good player and they have a nice team."
Today's championship game preview: Seattle U vs. Bowling Green at 8 p.m. PST
For Seattle U, last night's win was definitely an encouraging sign but tonight they face a much tougher opponent with better ball handling in Bowling Green point guard Tracy Pontius, who found multiple ways to contribute to BGSU's win last night. They are typically a much better three point shooting team than MSU and keeping up with Seidensticker is a great tune-up for stopping BGSU star Lauren Prochaska, but certainly a more difficult one given that Seidensticker didn't get to the free throw line once against Seattle U last night while Prochaska kept going hard to the line and ended up with 15 free throw attempts. To win, Seattle U will need two halves of complete basketball on both ends of the floor, particularly with the way they moved the ball in the second half.
"I said we're a work in progress - we have a lot of new kids," said Bonvicini, who has five news players this season if you count Dickerson. "As they continue to work on their shooting and they gain confidence with their post and guard play [our shooting percentage] is going to come up. It's amazing what happens when you start winning."
But no matter what the outcome of tonight's game, the opportunity to play for an early season championship of any kind against a team the caliber of BGSU is huge for the program and the current team.
"For us, we just needed to win and get our confidence up," said Bonvicini. "When you're confident and you play hard, good things happen. We have very good quality teams in this tournament and now to be in the championship we're playing a great team against Bowling Green that's going to be a hard game. But one I think I feel much better about - I'm glad it's here and we just have to play smart and build on the things we did well."