By no means was the USC Trojans' season-low 28.4% shooting against the Washington Huskies a fluke or simply the result of an off night.
Aside from the fact that yesterday's game was USC's fifth road game in their last seven games, Washington has opened the Pac-10 showing signs that they really are the defensive team that they've claimed to be all season. After holding UCLA to a below-average shooting performance on Friday, UW deserves credit for holding USC's trio of star guards - Ashley Corral, Jacki Gemelos, and Briana Gilbreath - to 10-for-41 shooting.
"I think a lot of it was their defense," said USC coach Michael Cooper. "A little bit was probably some fatigue on us. Again, we had an early-morning shootaround today and we've played some tough games and we're taking people's best punches."
So the fact that USC still managed to scrap their way to a 60-51 win in Seattle yesterday as a team that has normally relied heavily on the scoring efficiency of its guards to win games is actually a statement of how good this team is - it's true resilience. And for those who think a team with its sights set on the NCAA tournament should beat a shorthanded non-tournament team by at least double figures, you have to consider the way they won in Seattle yesterday as more impressive than the outcome or boxscore results.
"This one is simple - I think rebounding told the story," said UW coach Tia Jackson. "And if we do a better job in that area, we're going to be alright."
Key statistic: USC uncharacteristically dominated the offensive glass, 24-11
Even Cooper acknowledged that part of the reason they won the rebounding battle 52-40 is the absense of two of Washington's best rebounders in 6'3" junior Regina Rogers and 6'2" forward Mollie Williams. That same injury epidemic forced Jackson to use four or five guard lineups at times. But they refused to make any excuses for their poor rebounding effort after the game - they simply didn't get the job done.
"We all know how to take care of the ball and hit bodies," said UW freshman forward Marjorie Heard when asked about what happened on the boards. "It's Division I basketball, there's no excuses."
And as a result of their inability to find bodies, USC beat UW 24-11 on the offensive boards (45% of the available offensive rebounds to 28%). To put USC's performance in perspective, that's close to twice as many as their season average for offensive rebounds (about 13 per game) and nearly 10% higher than their normal offensive rebounding percentage.
Perhaps obvious from the numbers, there were a number of possessions when USC had two or three rebounds on one trip down the court. And in a 9 point game, their 13-6 advantage in second chance points made a huge difference.
USC statistical MVP: Christina Marinacci had a game-high 12 rebounds
Leading the Trojans' rebounding effort was 6'1" sophomore forward Christina Marinacci, who dominated the defensive boards with a team-high 7 defensive rebounds (and game-high 27.77% defensive rebounding percentage) and finished second on the team with 5 offensive rebounds. However, Marinacci also helped the team from the free throw line - and 4 of her 6 points - at a free throw rate of 100% (6 free throws to go with 6 field goals).
"It was a very, very tough game for us," said Cooper. "But again, we fought our way into it. Our defense was pretty good, didn't shoot well offensively, but again rebounding will always win you some games."
But while Marinacci's rebounding effort might be expected as the team's top rebounder thus far this season, to fully understand what made USC's win so impressive it helps to first go back to their previous win against Washington State in Pullman on New Year's Eve.
Not only was USC's trip to Pullman their fourth road game in six games - with finals week squeezed in there too, of course - but they were also beat badly on the offensive boards 18-11 by the Cougars despite winning the game 72-51. Of course, that might not be surprising for Trojans fans given that they were 9-3 coming into Seattle despite being beat on the offensive boards percentage-wise in 7 of their first 12 games. That said, the Trojans entered conference play at 9th in the Pac-10 in offensive rebounding percentage, about 3% better than last place Washington State.
So in that context, the fact that they got their fourth consecutive road win yesterday despite shooting a season-low 28.4% and dominating the Huskies on the offensive boards is actually extremely impressive. In other words, the Trojans won their fourth consecutive road game by relying on their biggest statistical weakness so far this season when their biggest strength - shooting efficiency - was taken away. That's impressive even if we set aside the fact that multiple coaches have noted that UW is better than they seem.
UW statistical MVP: Kristi Kingma Leads Defensive Effort To Force USC's Poor Shooting
Despite UW's struggles on the boards, they did an admirable job creating all those missed shots with their defensive effort.
"USC sets a lot of screen on-balls and a lot of staggers," said UW guard Kristi Kingma, who finished with a game-high 18 points including 4-for-10 shooting from three point range. "We did a really good job of chasing off screens."
With UW shutting down USC's mid-range game extremely effectively, USC retreated to the three point line shooting an uncharacteristic 27 threes (one off their season-high against Long Beach State. And Kingma contributed more than just contesting jumpers - she finished with a career- and game-high 8 defensive rebounds for a 20.59% defensive rebounding percentage, which is impressive for a player playing any position. She also accounted for team-highs with 2 steals and 1 block. Despite her poor shooting night - she shot 6-for-19 from the field herself - she and the entire UW roster did a great job challenging scorers.
"That's just a mindset going into it and making sure that you're focused on the little things and getting into their grill," said UW point guard Sarah Morton. "It's kind of a pride thing - making sure you don't get scored on, making sure that you have help. So I think it's more of a personal thing that we all take upon ourselves."
For a team that has been searching for its identity for most of the season, perhaps they can hope to hang their hat on what they did defensively on the perimeter against USC. However, it's probably little consolation to UW that USC can beat them in Seattle shooting a season-low field goal percentage, injuries or as-of-yet unfulfilled potential notwithstanding.
Nevertheless, while UW's defense and offensive rebounding were unquestionably the defining features of the game Jacki Gemelos still managed to stand out as a notch above everyone else on the court.
Key player: Gemelos makes an impact despite shooting struggles
There was a one minute sequence after Gemelos entered the game with 9:39 left in the second half that pretty much summed up her performance.
After blocking a short jumper by Heard, Gemelos set up a fastbreak layup for USC freshman forward Cassie Harberts. She then resumed guarding UW point guard Sarah Morton, before getting fouled on a fast break layup attempt and hitting two free throws off a pass from Harberts that was set up by a beautiful pass from Corral.
Gemelos is the rare player who can affect just about every aspect of a game on both ends of the court even when she isn't shooting well. It's not so much that USC played any differently with her on the court, but she has the capacity to make big plays on either end of the floor and do it with an ease that can make her seem less than spectacular until she's off the floor.
"Jacki spreads the offense, she's a deep three point shooter and she's another ball handler," said Cooper when asked about Gemelos' impact this season. "So it feels absolutely wonderful to have her back."
Despite only shooting 3-for-12 from the field, Gemelos had a strong 17.36% defensive rebounding percentage to go with 2 blocks and a steal. On the offensive end, she had 4 assists (21.32% assist ratio) to 1 turnover (5.33% turnover ratio) for a pure point rating of 5.20, which would make any point guard envious.
"I love having Jacki back," said Corral, who tied Gemelos with a team-high 4 assists. "She's another ball handler. She takes a lot of pressure off the inside game. Takes a lot of pressure off me. And I love playing with Jacki."
USC aiming for the tournament
When Gemelos first returned from injury last season, Swish Appeal photographer Craig Bennett said of the Pac-10 tournament, "If Gemelos is the truth, then USC will take it."
Yesterday was a perfect example of why he said that - with the combination of Corral, Gemelos, and Gilbreath, USC is an extremely dynamic team on both ends. They can run, they can defend, they can play half court defense. Now, apparently, they can rebound too. If the mark of a great team is being able to win in the face of adversity or when their strengths are taken away, then USC showed the capacity to do exactly that with their win in Seattle by relying so heavily on an aspect of their game that is unquestionably a weakness.
To Bennett's point, in a one-and-done scenario in the Pac-10 tournament, there's no reason that a team this versatile couldn't sneak up on the conference's higher ranked teams. Even if they don't belatedly prove Bennett right in terms of winning the conference, they're still working to earn votes in the national polls, and could be the Pac-10's third representative in the NCAA tournament come March.
"I've never worked this hard in the off-season and I know as a team we haven't," said Corral when asked if being left out of the tournament is motivation to this year. "Every single day it's to get to the next thing. We have our short-term goals that we're getting, we have our long-term goals that we're fighting for, and that was definitely a big push coming into the season."