If you want a sign of improvement for the Washington Huskies, look no further than their 58-55 win over Utah last Wednesday in which freshman Marjorie Heard hit a game-winning three pointer with 2.8 seconds left.
"We didn't have a win like that last year where we were on the road, we were down, and the game was going back and forth," said junior guard Kristi Kingma during media availability on Monday afternoon. "I don't think we had a big win like that early in the year last year. It's something we definitely benefit from in that we know we can go on the road in a hostile environment and rely on our senior leadership and not only just Morty but even our freshmen to get things done."
As big as getting a close win on the road is for the team, winning consecutive road games - they previously beat San Jose State 49-27 on a neutral court in the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout - has been a rather difficult task in recent years.
They did technically do it last season about this time, beating UCF on December 4th before beating Seattle University on December 9th. But UW fans filled Seattle U's cozy Connolly Center with purple (against a program playing their first full season in Division I), so although it wasn't on their home court it wasn't exactly far from home and it might as well have been a home atmosphere. Prior to that, you have to go all the way back to December 2006 when UW beat their Pac-10 counterparts in Oregon to kick off the Pac-10 season. And of course, that was a few months before fourth year coach Tia Jackson was even hired.
Even if you aren't willing to so easily disregard the Seattle U win as a "road win", the fact is that consecutive road wins haven't happened that often for the Huskies. And a third consecutive win is within reach when they face 0-9 Cal State University - Northridge tonight at 7 p.m. PST, even if coach Tia Jackson isn't about to give the media any bulletin board material.
"They're going to be a scrappy, scrappy team," said Jackson. "Don't let that 0-9 record fool you."
Winning three in a row on the road is something the Huskies haven't done since that road run in the 2006-07 season. So it's probably safe to say that even being in position to win three in a row and going two games over .500 (something that did happen last season) is a sign of improvement for the program.
And finally having senior point guard Sarah Morton healthy again - even if she's still not 100% - certainly provides some measure of hope that there might be more improvement to come over the course of this season.
With 20 points and 5 assists in her first game back, it's pretty obvious that having point guard Sarah Morton back is huge for the Washington Huskies.
"I think for the most part we kinda expected Morty to do that," said Kingma, who had 13 points and 4 steals in the road win against Utah. "Obviously, she'd been injured for a while. But it's not abnormal for her to do - to come in and take over a game - especially being a senior leader. You kinda expect her to do that."
It's only one game and perhaps Jackson is less optimistic about Morton's chances of repeating that type of performance.
"She put up an effective game, but I didn't think she was gonna go for 20," said Jackson. "Heck, if I can mark 20 in the book we can plan out a lot more here."
So that leaves us with a question: how exactly did Morton help the team against Utah and what might that tell us about what the team needs to do against Northridge?
How Morton Helped:
For freshman Marjorie Heard who actually hadn't yet played in actual game with Morton prior to the Utah game last Wednesday due to the injury, the impact was immediately evident from a leadership standpoint.
"Totally leadership," said Heard when asked about the impact of Morton's return. "There's tons of leadership by the upperclassmen all the time. But just to have that extra person who is the senior, who is a point guard, who this is her last year she wants to go out with a bang."
To be specific about what Morton took the lead on basketball-wise, perhaps the most significant thing that happened Morton contributed was her ability to get to the free throw line - she had an exceptional free throw rate, getting to the line 16 times and making 12. As is usual with a free throw rate that high, it's a sign of aggression going to the rim.
"I think I was just focusing on attacking and realizing that they were guarding Kristi pretty tight and that I had to go to the hole to either draw her player in or just to finish myself," said Morton. "And they seemed to allow me to do that so I took what they gave me."
Although it's great to have multiple players who will step up when called upon - as Heard did when she hit the game-winner against Utah - the fact remains that the team was much more effective with a senior point guard directing things. Statistically, it changed the distribution of labor as well - against freshman point guard Mercedes Wetmore and redshirt junior Mackenzie Argens stepped up to split almost 50% of the team's statistical production in their win against San Jose State with Kingma stepping up for 35%. Against Utah, Kingma took on a slight lesser role assuming 25% of the responsibility, Morton led the way with 30% of the production, and nobody else was above 20%.
In simpler terms, 2/3 of the trio that Jackson expected to lead the team prior to the season - center Regina Rogers is still injured and did not travel with the team to Northridge - led the team with Morton back, meaning things started to return to something resembling what could be considered "normal".
Williams returned to her natural position:
Another perhaps more subtle impact of Morton's return is that players like Mollie Williams were able to play their natural positions again - in Morton's absence, Jackson chose to keep freshman Mercedes Wetmore on the bench and move Kingma from the shooting guard to the point guard position.
"As much as it stood out that Kristi was playing out of position so was Mollie," said Jackson. "Mollie was playing the 3/4 - an injured 3, mind you. So we had three bigs on the floor at the same time with two guards. So that kind of threw us off a little bit, but we managed. And if we have to then they're prepared for it."
And with a starting point guard returning to the lineup and players playing in position more, the team also appeared to do a better job of moving the ball against Utah, particularly in the first half when they were looking for Kingma more on quick-hitters and assisted 8 of their 11 field goals.
Keys For Third Consecutive Win Against Northridge:
Continuing that ball movement from the first half against Utah might be valuable for UW, particularly depending on how CSUN decides to defend Kingma.
"All night they were double-teaming me, being really physical with me and I don't think they were expecting much of her - just the fact that it was her first game back," said Kingma. "I thought she did a really good job of stepping up and saying if they're going to double-team Kristi and they're going to play really tough on me that's going to create an opening for someone and it created an opening for her and for just about everyone else."
Although Kingma will certainly still be considered one of the team's leaders, Morton's return might have had the biggest effect on her game. In addition to assuming less of the ball handling duties, it also relieved some pressure for her as a scorer.
If we can say anything about this team, one thing that Morton's absence showed is that they're not the type of team that has players who can beat defenders one-on-one off the dribble well - they are much more efficient when they more the ball to create space. They shot 61.1% in the first half against Utah while moving the ball, which is quite clearly remarkable for a team that shoots 36.4% for the season.
"Getting double-teamed - no one really wants to go through that," said Kingma. "But if they're going to double team me, someone's going to be open. And I thought Utah did a really good job of being really physical and taking me out of my game a little bit, but for the most part Morty was able to step up, Marjie was able to step up - I don't think teams looking at this past performance will be able to do that again."
Northridge's biggest weakness is that they've been outshot by opponents, particularly from the three point line where they've allowed opponents to shoot 37.3% on the season. Washington has shot well from beyond the arc at 37.2%, with Kingma leading the way with a 43.3% three point shooting percentage. Although Kingma has been the only consistent long-range threat, if they can keep the ball moving and find those open shooters when the defense is focusing on Kingma, they'll be in good position.
Jackson noted that CSUN is an aggressive, scrappy team and perhaps one of the ways that aggression has gotten them in trouble is by their tendency to foul and send teams to the free throw line at a rather high rate of 46.45% per game.
They're also aggressive on the offensive end, according to Jackson's brief scouting report.
"Their guards love to penetrate," said Jackson. "They're a five-out, four-out motion team. They just move a lot - a lot. So it's going to be a challenge for our bigs to get out there and chase them."
However, with all that motion CSUN also turns the ball over 18 times a game and given that the Huskies have been able to force opponents into turnovers this season, that could play a significant role in tonight's game.
It's tempting to disregard Morton's effect as merely one game. And in terms of her individual output, it's probably reasonable to stand with Jackson in expressing a little surprise about just how good she was.
Nevertheless, there were glimmers of things to build on in Utah that were certainly enabled by having a point guard who is capable of making plays for herself and others.