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Win or Lose, WBI Opener Proves Valuable For Young Players & Growing Programs

First round play of the inaugural Women's Basketball Invitational in Seattle was odd, to say the least, but underneath the lopsided outcome was a deeper level of shared meaning.

University of Washington forward Mollie Williams, who has gone 0-5 from the three point line in her first two years in Seattle pulled up for a three with 5:50 left in the first half.

Center Laura McLellan got one of Washington's season-high 18 steals with at the 5:30 mark and dribbled half the court for a lay-up.

McLellan capped off a dominant first half by shooting a three with just over a minute left in the game, her first shot from downtown since taking two in the 2006-07 season.

Yet the radio announcer aptly described the pace with about 8 minutes left in the first half: "The Huskies look like they're moving slow motion."

Oh yeah, the University of Portland was present too, but weren't exactly a factor on the court.

The Huskies were able to move in slow motion because the Pilots came out and "laid an egg" as Portland coach Jim Sollars described. Portland turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, gaveup 10 offensive rebounds, and only shot 30% overall and 28.57% on 2 point shots.

"This game has slowed to a snail's pace," said the radio announcer with a minute left. "The Huskies will send Portland back down the I-5 corridor, ending their season with a defeat."

He wasn't just imagining things either -- the Pilots looked like a team that was disinterested in making the relatively short trip to Seattle to begin with and Washington was able to discomfit them without much effort.

"We looked like we didn't have legs, we didn't play with maturity, we didn't play with discipline, didn't do the things that we have to do," said Sollars. "Mentally, it just didn't look like we were ready to play the game."

So despite a 75-44 win for UW and by far their best performance of the season statistically, it was not exactly an exemplar of what makes basketball beautiful. It's perfectly reasonable to wonder whether part of Portland's problem was the context itself.

"Anything like this [tournament], you always wonder, ‘how many of your kids are really gonna show to be ready to play'," said Sollars. "But I don't think that was it - certainly I don't think the staff felt that way. I just think it was symptomatic of we are not a very mature team - one senior and we haven't  had a lot of leadership all year long.

"When we're running and shooting the ball well, we're a good basketball team, but that's a big if -I think we're 14-0 when we score 70 points. And they just need to grow up and understand that it's not gonna be easy all the time. And I think the lessons to be learned are you gotta be tough, you gotta be disciplined, you gotta play good defense because there are nights when the ball is not going through the hole and there are nights when you can't run on people. And that's where I think the maturity comes - they just have to understand that."

So on the surface, a game like this one in what could be considered be perfect fodder for those that might suggest this tournament is unnecessary and simply a waste of time and resources. On the one hand, UW looked like they were walking around cones in their offensive sets while on the other hand, Portland looked wholly disinterested in playing basketball. However, there was value beyond the play on the court for the development of the young players and growing programs that participated.

"No reflection on the tournament at all," said Sollars. "The fact that we laid an egg was not their problem... There are consequences for not taking care of details, for not taking care of business and one of them is getting your butt kicked."

If the problem coach Sollars identified was a lack of discipline, focus, and maturity, teams like his might actually only reinforce the need for having tournaments like the WBI, even if the players don't immediately appreciate the value. It's a learning experience that is good for the student-athletes in the long-run.

"You gotta learn from these things," said Sollars. "And the thing is, it's the maturity to go to class without somebody reminding you, to be on time - you cannot believe how many hundreds of sprints they've to do because this one or that one didn't take care of little details...So maybe this was a reflection of those kind of things. So I think that's good. That's good for kids."

As much as the value of a defeat in a new post-season tournament in front of a sparse crowd of 745 looked agonizing for Portland players, the value of post-season play was certainly not lost on the victors.

"It's like you have life again," said sophomore guard Kristi Kingma, Washington's second leading scorer who will likely be expected to pick up more of the scoring burden on the perimeter next season. "You go from such a low to such a high that you get to play again. I think that everyone is so excited to have the opportunity to play again and we proved that tonight. We are not ashamed at all to play in the WBI. We look at it as a privilege to play in the postseason."

For a coach like Washington's Tia Jackson who has been to the NCAA tournament before as an assistant, the game was not a whole lot different - asisde from the quick turnaround and having to review 10 game tapes in about 24 hours, things were normal. However, for the seven players who played in the game that will return next year - including 5 sophomores - any post-season tournament was a new experience that is ultimately worthwhile.

"I expect in the next two years to make the NCAA tournament - obviously, that's the ultimate goal," said Kingma, sitting opposite of sophomore forward Mackenzie Argens at the table in the media room. "But I know for Mack and I and all the sophomores and the people that are returning any post-season play is new to us and it's exciting. Regardless of if you have 200 people in the stands or 5,000 people in the stands it's exciting because you have new life in your season. And we're looking at it one game at a time and hopefully we have three more."

For teams that had inconsistent seasons - like Washington - or struggled with discipline, focus or maturity - like Portland - the WBI is a welcome addition. Not only is it a matter of experience, but affordability.

"Very frankly, it's affordable," said Sollars. "You know? For a lot of mid-levels, it's affordable. The WNIT can be horribly expensive. Which, I mean, doesn't mean you don't want to play in it, but depending on where the travel is some schools don't have the resources. The thing about this is the costs are cut down, they help you with the travel, I think it's a great idea, I really do. I think it's good for basketball to have kids playing in a post- season tournament. I think it's good for young kids."

If you are interested in the growth of women's basketball, it's hard to quibble with experience for young players and profit for the programs themselves.

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