There are some moments in sports when you have to crack a smile.
"I'm a little wet because they poured Gatorade all over my clothes," said Washington coach Tia Jackson as she settled into her seat at the post game press conference. "So they're excited. And the only thing was to avoid the hair and they still...didn't avoid the hair."
Normally, we imagine Gatorade showers happening after teams win championships. Yet it happened in Washington's locker room yesterday despite being far from winning a Pac-10 championship this season.
Unless they win the Pac-10 tournament, they won't qualify for the NCAA tournament. They didn't even get a first round bye in the Pac-10 tournament, a conference sixth in the nation in RPI. All Washington accomplished in beating the University of Oregon 62-53 on Senior Day was tying their opponents from Eugene for 6th place in the conference standings* and finishing conference play on a three-game win streak to send their five seniors off on a high note.
The reason for excitement was that any way you look at it, Washington exceeded question expectations in conference play after a disappointing performance in non-conference play. Both media and coaches picked them to come in last, they had to overcome injuries, and every lapse on the court led fans to further doubt Jackson. Most importantly, Washington has demonstrated amazing growth.
"What a great way to close out the Pac-10 season," said Jackson. "We kinda started out strong at the beginning back in January, had a little lull there. But really just excited about the way we finished off. Tremendous momentum going into the Pac-10 tournament. So really proud of the girls and what they did and it's fun."
For most of the season and into conference play, rebounding has been a major problem for Washington. However, they managed to outrebound their opponents in their last five home gams, which included games against 3 of the top 4 rebounding teams in the conference (Stanford University, University of California, and Oregon State University).
Second, after claiming all season that they were a team built around their post game, they finally looked like a post-centered team on Sunday afternoon, with center Regina Rogers scoring a team-high 15 points including a number of key baskets down the stretch to put the game away. The Seattle crowd was so appreciative of Rogers' effort to protect the lead down the stretch that they gave her a loud applause after an offensive rebound with 1:44 left in the second half.
But third, what was most impressive is that Washington played arguably one of their strongest team games of the season on yesterday afternoon. Although Rogers got most of the headlines as the team's leading scorer, Washington got equally valuable contributions from three other players.
"We were talking about it on the bench after she sat down the seniors," said senior guard Sami Whitcomb. "We were looking out there and it was all sophomores, I think one junior in Morty. And they were doing so well: they were getting steals, they were locking people up on defense, scoring. So it was just really exciting to see that. And they're so young - it's not even like they were juniors, they were all very young and they're so talented and they're growing every year."
Sophomore Kristi Kingma scored 11 points, hitting all three of her field goals from three point range in an efficient team-high 35 minutes. Senior Laura McLellan went to work on the boards finishing with 9 rebounds and 5 offensive rebounds. Point guard Sarah Morton played one of her most efficient games of the season attacking the basket and getting the team into the offense. The steady play of her and reserve point guard Christina Rozier was no small part of the team's efficient second half play in which they only committed three turnovers.
"I think we had, what, 32 turnovers against them last time or 29," said Jackson. "14 this game and -- I just noticed it as I got the stat sheet - but just remarkable carry over from practice and just growth from this team in the last two months so I'm really proud of ‘em."
All in all, for Washington the game was not only a strong way to end this season, but with the performance of their underclassmen it was also a strong performance going into next season.
However even in situations when there is plenty to smile about there can be aspects that feel excruciating.
Yesterday's win was not particularly pretty and especially not for the University of Oregon.
In contrast to Washington, Oregon was quite successful running coach Paul Westhead's up-tempo system in non-conference and has seemingly run out of gas at the end of conference play, dropping six games in a row.
"Oregon women’s basketball: Ducks drop sixth straight to end regular season" | The Register-Guard | Eugene, Oregon
There was no blown double-digit lead for the Ducks this time, after two straight games of that. But it was close — Oregon led by nine in the first half before allowing UW back within one by halftime and to dominate play in the second half.
The Huskies won despite shooting 31.3 percent, because the Ducks shot 30.2 percent. Oregon’s two lowest shooting percentages of the season have come in the last two games.
"Lately, we just kind of ran out of offense," said UO coach Paul Westhead, whose reputation was built on that facet of the game. "It’s not a good feeling.
"You could say we looked tired, and that may be true. We just aren’t making shots."
Especially troubling is that they really struggle to score once they get into their half-court sets.
"We're the kind of team [that] we need to be making shots off the break or we need to be making shots on the move, getting people playing in, kicking out," said Westhead.
Similar to what happened against UCLA last weekend, once Washington started focusing on closing out and getting a hand in the face of Oregon's shooters, Oregon stopped scoring. Oregon's star seniors Micaela Cocks and Taylor Lilley shot a combined 7-26 including 3-15 from the three point line.
"I think our players did a tremendous job keeping a hand up on their shooters," said Jackson. "And it's not just those two who can make ‘em - their fours and fives can shoot threes just as well. We wanted to make sure those looks were not uncontested and that meant as soon as they crossed half court - get a hand up. And from our Regina's to the smallest player on the team, Christina, everybody had a hand up. It didn't matter what package our players came in, our players had a hand up on those shooters."
However, even if Oregon's finish to the season isn't exactly worthy of Gatorade showers, it isn't exactly reason to judge veteran coach Paul Westhead's transition to women's college baskeball as a failure. Oregon's sixth place finish is their best since 2007.
- Although Washington and Oregon are tied in the standings, Oregon owns a tie breaker by defeating USC at home. So for conference seeding purposes, Washington is seventh and Oregon is sixth.