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It's Still December, But Riverside Has Developed A Stronger Identity Than Washington

As sometimes happens in basketball, nobody really had an explanation for the Washington Huskies 19% shooting in the first half of their 59-54 loss to the UC Riverside Highlanders yesterday afternoon.

And despite a number of positives in the second half, the disquieting experience of witnessing the Huskies come out "dead" sort of hung over the game in a way that might have even lingered with a win. To be sure, disappointment of this type only comes with heightened expectations and even though it's December, those were certainly present with the Huskies riding a three game winning streak on the road coming into the game.

"The first half we were not all there as a team," said Huskies forward Mollie Williams, who finished with 8 points and 10 rebounds. "When we went into halftime we talked as a team that this is our house we need to pick it up and show people what they've been missing when we were on the road. So as we did that, we came into the second half with a more mental state of doing what we had to do."

Huskies coach Tia Jackson did her best to keep the post-game media conference upbeat from the moment she walked into the media room ("Somebody die?") and there were definitely positives to build on in the second half. But a feeling of disappointment was somewhat unavoidable given the situation - like the first half was on the court, the loss was something of a letdown as a homecoming for a team that had just won three in a row on away from Seattle.

UW Women Ready for a Breakthrough " Kitsap Sun
A three-game winning streak and the return of several healthy bodies have UW (4-2) feeling pretty good about the product that will be at Hec Ed this afternoon.

"We’re close," head coach Tia Jackson said Friday afternoon as her team prepared for today’s game against UC Riverside (4-2). "We’re on the verge right now of a tremendous breakthrough."

Although coaches always like to stay focused on the present, for an embattled coach like Jackson there was undeniably a bigger symbolic breakthrough at stake - the first four game winning streak of her tenure at Washington.

As both coaches alluded to afterward, basketball is a game of maximizing your own possessions by limiting mistakes while simultaneously trying to prevent the opponent from accomplishing that. And to their credit, the Huskies did overcome what junior guard Kristi Kingma described as a "dead" first half, particularly in the way they extended their possessions to help them find scoring opportunities.

In the second half, the Huskies dominated the offensive boards 62% to 13% in the second half, which led to a 12-0 advantage in second chance points. They couldn't have shot much worse and managed to outshoot the Highlanders in the second half by a margin of 37.5% to 36.4%. And after having a turnover percentage approaching 40% (12 turnovers) in the first half, they brought it down to 22% (7 turnovers) in the second half.

Those things are all great.

However, watching them give control of the game right back to the Highlanders down the stretch was an all-too-familiar sight - whatever feelings of optimism existed for the team and the program prior to the game gave way to the return of the type of doubt that comes from simply being left without answers.

On the flip side, this was a solid road win for Riverside, but not quite a major "upset".

This is a team that won the Big West Conference tournament and made the 2010 NCAA Tournament, returning all but three seniors. Even if the tournament berth led to getting blown out by Stanford - something most Pac-10 programs are familiar with - they're a team that knows how to win within their system. There was a clear go-to player in Alyssa Morris who scored 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting. They posed a challenge and had they not lost twins Rhaya (fouled out) and Rheya (illness) Neabors, it's reasonable to assume that they might have even won by a larger margin.

"It's not like we created anything in the second half," said Jackson about what it was like to go through that first half. "It was the same offense we were looking for, it was the same screens. And we just got challenged today - it was a physical game on both ends for both teams and for the most part, Riverside responded a little bit better than we did in the first half."

Responding to the Huskies for the most part meant establishing an advantage on the perimeter. That began with a barrage of three point shots and while they didn't make all of them, the Huskies simply didn't have answers. Aside from their 5-for-13 three point shooting, it wasn't as if Riverside was great but their assertiveness was enough to put the Huskies on their heels.

"When you're not matching it, it deflates you a little bit," said Jackson. "We weren't giving them the same offensive power that they were giving us. And they got comfortable pretty quick in our home. So with that being said, it took us out of what we really wanted to do because now you've got to extend our defense a little bit more than we ideally wanted to."

And on a day in which the Huskies failed to get that breakthrough win, the fact that Riverside took control of the game to deflate the more established program really stands out, at least symbolically - while Washington is once again struggling to establish their identity, Riverside is not only confident with exactly who they are but also has the capacity to impose their will on an imposing team on the road.

Riverside is doing something right

On a broader scale, Riverside also came up randomly in a media conference on Saturday with Seattle University guard Daidra Brown - after putting together their best performance of the season in an upset of the University of Idaho, she mentioned having similar struggles against Riverside in a 65-55 loss in Southern California on Nov 19 - playing a great second half after struggling out of the gate. At the time, Seattle U coach Joan Bonvicini broke down the game with a quote that probably could have been used for Washington yesterday.

Seattle U's Second Half Efforts Not Enough, Women's Basketball Drops 65-56 Decision at UC Riverside - Seattle University Redhawks Athletics
"It was a tale of two halves," said head coach Joan Bonvicini. "I think we played very hesitant and it wasn't until the middle of the second half we really loosened up and started competing. Our team is learning a lot and they are growing."

...

The first half was forgettable, as the Redhawks struggled to find their offensive rhythm. Seattle U shot 20 percent (4-for-20) from the field, seeing a pair of three-pointers and five free throws account for their 15 first half points. The opening minutes of the half saw the lead within reach for SU, but with 8:46 left the Highlanders were able to capitalize on the Redhawks four minute scoring drought to take a double-figure lead into halftime, 32-15.

Perhaps there are two ways to look at that - one is that UW and Seattle U have no business being compared to one another. Seattle U is a fledgling second-year Division I institution and UW is an established Pac-10 program. But the other side of that coin has nothing really to do with Seattle's teams and everything to do with Riverside - at some point, perhaps it's something they're doing to take teams out of their games and force slow starts.

Everybody - even mighty Stanford who beat both of these teams soundly last season - is working on establishing their identity at this time of the season. But Riverside, an obscure blip on the national basketball landscape for most women's basketball fans, appears to be leveraging their tournament experience from last season to help stabilize their identity with an eye on the future, which just puts things in perspective. There was a sense from Margaritis of not only who his team aspires to be but also the direction they're headed.

"I think that in time maybe people will make it more than it should be, just because people can say we won on the road or whatever," said Margaritis. "And I think that you go into the season and schedule so many games and, I don't know, I don't think I ever schedule to lose. And for example, if we won tonight and then lose some game we're not supposed to, how much does that mean? But if we can maybe win the other games we're supposed to win and maybe go a little bit over our head and beat somebody we're not supposed to, then it's a big win.

"So let's just see how it plays out through the year and then we can look back and say, 'Oh yeah, we beat the people we were supposed to and we even beat someone we weren't supposed to.'"

There is certainly something to be said for the fact that the Huskies have progressed from searching for an identity to trying to establish a known identity consistently. Nevertheless, losing the way they lost with a breakthrough game on the line is just an unfortunate speed bump before finals, Georgia Tech, and then the Pac-10 season.

Related:

SBN Seattle story stream for the game

Post-game quote from Huskies coach Tia Jackson