Perhaps the best way to describe Washington Huskies basketball this season is that it's an acquired taste.
Once you accept that, it becomes easier to appreciate games likes yesterday's 64-52 win over the Washington State Cougars in which the two teams combined for 45 turnovers. From there, it becomes much easier to explain why the 5,295 fans in attendance for the highly anticipated Apple Cup game were arguably the loudest they've been all season, in addition to getting the chance to beat their cross-state rival of course.
"How awesome, huh? I remember just the defensive stop that we needed, the hair on my arms stood up because I could hear the electricity in the room - I could feel it," said UW coach Tia Jackson when asked about the atmosphere. "They just got loud and we got the defensive stop and it got even louder. It was just amazing.
"So here's a challenge to everyone listening: Get back here next weekend, Thursday and Saturday against the Oregon schools."
And of course, it would be silly not to show the UW defense some love for WSU's 27 turnovers.
It was a season-best for the Huskies and close to a season-worst for the Cougars, who committed a season-high 28 turnovers against UCLA. And once you start comparing a team's defensive performance to that of UCLA - arguably the Pac-10's best defensive unit, if not among the best in the nation - there's even more reason to give a nod to UW's defensive prowess.
"Defense, that's just what we do," said Jackson of the Huskies' first half defense in which WSU committed 17 turnovers. "We were able to get our hands on a lot where they couldn't get a lot of looks from three, those clean looks from three, they would start to penetrate in there and we would got our hands right were the ball was coming. And a credit to our posts too: a lot of times those passes came in and they were deflected and they went right to the guards' hands. Between Kristi (Kingma) and Char (Barlow) they had 9 steals by themselves and that's huge."
Yet not to diminish UW's defensive effort, even if we take all of that into account, those 27 turnovers were only partially due to UW's defense.
When you start to add up WSU's bad passes and mishandles that didn't show up in the final boxscore because they either miraculously found their way to a teammate when they weren't deflected out of bounds, it begins to become clear that WSU hurt themselves as much, if not more than, UW's defense, 16 steals notwithstanding.
"You know, we are going to have some people wide open on the slips because of all the switching and stuff, but you can't just float the basketball in there - you really gotta zip it," said WSU coach June Daugherty. "So, it's that time in the Pac-10...where everybody really knows what each other is gonna to do offensively and defensively and what you're trying to negate. And they were switching up and trying to negate some of the things that we do with our shooters coming off the double screens. And we were trying to exploit that."
Whether you attribute the turnovers to poor decision making in the face of the schemes designed to negate what they wanted to do on the Cougars' end or outstanding Huskies defense, the fact is that the turnovers ultimately determined the outcome of this game.
Key stat: WSU hurt themselves with 21 turnovers in the first 24 minutes
As bad as it was that WSU turned the ball over 17 times in the first half, it continued with them committing 4 turnovers in the first 4 minutes of the second half to compile a rather alarming 21 turnovers in 24 minutes.
Late-game run aside, WSU dug a huge hole for themselves with their inability to accomplish the fundamental basketball task of holding onto the ball.
"Turning the ball over 27 times, you know, that's the ball game and you're not going to ever have success at any level of basketball turning it over that much," said Daugherty. "That was certainly our demise and something that we can definitely improve upon and we'll work on it."
However, if there's a bright side to WSU's sloppy first 24 minutes it's that the final numbers point to a significantly stronger finish - the Cougars managed to significantly cut down on their turnover in the final 16 minutes, which is part of what contributed to their big 13-0 run that pulled them to within 5 with 4:46 left in the game.
"It was just trying to focus on our execution a little bit better, being strong with the basketball, and just showing the team certain areas that we felt we could exploit with all the switching going on and getting some easier shots," said Daugherty. "But just trying to get them back to understanding to get fundamentally sound, get strong with the basketball."
Key player: Cook, Perkins' athleticism helps WSU get back into the game
Obviously when a team is turning the ball over as often as WSU was, the first place you look is at the guard play. And with guards Jazmine Perkins and April Cook combining for 11 turnovers on the game, certainly they assume a large part of responsibility for the team's struggles.
But that also means they deserve the credit for the turnaround - they combined for only 3 turnovers in the second half, with Perkins' energetic play perhaps the biggest reason for sustaining their six minute run to get in the game.
"We mixed up some that we were doing on the defensive end and we were able to get some traps and get in some passing lanes and get some run-outs and try to use our speed against them," said Daugherty. "It was pretty effective - we got within five - but it wasn't enough."
In addition to controlling the ball more effectively in the second half, Perkins' athleticism played a huge role in getting WSU back into the game - after hitting the three pointer that cut UW's lead to 15 and catalyzed the run at the 10:20 mark, Perkins applied pressure off the dribble getting 4 of her 6 free throws during that run.
"It's up to us to just keep getting better at the adjustments the opponent makes defensively and not just stay on the play, so to speak," said Daugherty about what changed during that run. "Get off that train track and realize, 'That's not going to work because they're switching up some things' and get into our secondary offense, which is more movement and drive and kick. And a couple of times when we did that in the second half, you saw people have pretty good looks. But we didn't do that enough for 40 minutes."
Cook was also huge on the boards during their run, grabbing 3 of her 5 rebounds during that time period. The combination of WSU guard controlling the ball, driving to the hole, rebounding, and hitting threes while UW was simply missing shots led to the perfect storm of Huskies drought combined with a whirlwind of athleticism from the Cougars.
"I was just trying to keep the energy up," said Cook when asked about her performance. "I thought we had a lack of energy toward the end of the first half and I was just trying to keep my energy up."
And the strong guard play didn't end there.
WSU statistical MVP: Freshman Romberg joins the wing rebounding effort
In addition to Cook coming up big during that particular run, WSU guards were also huge on the glass throughout the game, with Perkins grabbing a team-high 8 rebounds including tying for a game-high 3 offensive rebounds while freshman wing Sage Romberg finished tied for a game-high 6 defensive rebounds. Although the Cougars lost the overall rebounding battle 40-39 for the game, they won it 25-19 in the second half, which was critical to their success.
And in addition to getting two rebounds during the Cougars' run, Romberg also hit a three to cut the lead to 10, assisted on the Ireti Amojo jumper that got WSU within 5, and then grabbed a huge defensive rebound off a missed Sarah Morton jumper that could have helped the Cougars cut it to a one-possession game.
While Romberg might not show up huge in the stats at first glance - and honestly, part of the reason she emerges as the statistical MVP in this game is that she did less turnover harm than Cook or Perkins - her quiet, yet steady play during WSU's run was crucial to their ability to get back in the game and remain consistent, if only briefly.
UW statistical MVP: Kingma carries Washington...again
However, the star of this game was unquestionably Kristi Kingma and not necessarily just because of her three pointer with 3:21 left garnered that ended WSU's run at 13 and justifiably garnered the majority of post-game attention.
Kingma also finished with career-highs with = 11 field goals made and 6 steals as well as 6 rebounds, including two strong defensive rebounds just before the Cougars' big run.
It's been said before, but bears repeating: Kristi Kingma is emerging as not only a team leader or one of the conference's best shooters, but quietly a contender for top shooting guard in the Pac-10. She accounted for an unreal 58.13% of the team's overall statistical production, which without much explanation is pretty remarkable - to put that in perspective, while Kingma was lighting up the Cougars for 29 points from all over the place, her teammates only shot 6-for-35 (17.14%).
"It's really fun to have a player like Kristi who you can really have complete confidence in and just know that when it comes down to it she's going to be willing to take that big shot and just hit it those shots that people set her up for," said UW point guard Sarah Morton, who finished with a team-high 5 assists. "It was fun, it was real fun."
Beyond her scoring, she only got 1 assist, but had nobody to pass to. She had the ball in her hands more than anyone during her 38 minutes of playing time, yet didn't commit a turnover. And with the defense having no reason to focus on anyone but her, she still managed to find herself open on a number of occasions and knocked down over 50% of her shots.
So to say that Kingma carried the team offensively, is far from hyperbole, especially given that UW's posts were held in check for most of the second half. She got almost literally no scoring help and with a lower free throw rate in the second half, it's not like the team got any more effective at scoring throughout the game either.
That backdrop, as much as any intangible notion of pressure, is what makes her late-game run-ending three point shot impressive. That she also took on a prominent defensive role down the stretch, contesting shots nearly perfectly and getting a big steal and fast break layup to essential crush the Cougars' spirit after her big shot is even more impressive.
"Being a leader - I feel like, for the most part, I'm a fairly vocal leader - I know that in crunch time and there needs to be a basket or there needs to be a steal, whether or not I'm the person doing it, I need to make sure that we understand what needs to get done," said Kingma. "When they went on their run we came together and just said, 'They're going to on a run but as long as we rebound and take care of the ball then we'll withstand it.' Just my intensity, I think, was more intense than it has been."
Kingma has turned into the type of efficient all-around player and vocal leader that the Huskies haven't had in a while.
And it makes her extremely difficult to contain even if her opponents know it's coming.
"We didn't have the answer today," said Daugherty. "We're going to have to find the answer next time we play them."
And the fact that she does so quietly and within the team concept is only more impressive.