Something magical happened during the Washington Huskies' 57-48 win on January 16, aside from the fact that they embarrassed a "lackadaisical and unfocused" Cal Golden Bears team in Seattle.
"It was funny," said UW senior point guard Sarah Morton after that game. "Me and Charmaine were laughing at halfcourt and she's like, ‘We just played some great D!' and I was like, ‘You're right' - like we're a pretty solid defensive team and it's really fun to be out there and having faith and confidence that if I am late to something that my teammate is going to help me and just knowing that my teammate is going to be there. We just communicate much better and we trust each other a lot more."
Although that might not seem like a big deal to those that haven't watched the Huskies up close for the past two seasons, just developing that sense of collective identity and translating it into a win was an important accomplishment for this team.
After spending most of last season on a perpetual search for a stable identity that never truly solidified, that identity seemed to come together much more strongly and consistently early in Pac-10 play.
The problem was that it wasn't resulting in wins - despite solid defensive performances against USC and Stanford in their two prior games, they had failed to turn the corner and get a win due to getting beaten badly on the offensive boards. Against Cal though, everything seemed to change - not only did they defend well in holding Cal to 25% second half shooting and forcing all manner of turnovers, but they also rebounded well and gave their fans a win.
"I definitely think it was a much-needed win just because we were kind of like, ‘We're giving everything we've got, are we going to get a reward at the end?'" said Morton. "And this was a great one. So I don't know if it's a season-changer, but it definitely felt pretty good."While Cal did not play well by any stretch of the imagination, the fact that UW capitalized is a definite sign of improvement and, as Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans alluded to, something to add to coach Tia Jackson's resume. One game against an unfocused opponent won't change the fortunes of the season, but it definitely bodes well for them going forward.
However in retrospect, we can probably say that Cal game probably wasn't necessarily a season-changer despite the positive feelings - after beating Cal again in Berkeley to complete a season sweep, they won only 2 of their next 5 home games, including a loss to then-winless (in Pac-10) Oregon State and a near-loss to Oregon, which fell apart when star point guard Nia Jackson left the game due to injury.
Yet if indeed the Cal game was the moment when they finally managed to channel that defensive potential into a win, then perhaps it was actually the USC game that best serves as a microcosm for their season - even while clearly demonstrating progress on the identity front, their progress was seemingly undermined by consistent struggles to generate offense.
"A defensive team is what we are," UW coach Tia Jackson has reiterated repeatedly this season. "We know that we can keep teams close to our average so that we're in contention to win games. And that's really what we do: we become a very physical team, we become an aggressive team."
Their defense has been particularly aggressive in Seattle.
While they successfully held UCLA under their average points and field goal percentage for the season on December 31, they almost completely neutralized USC in holding them to 23.3% shooting in the second half and 28.4% shooting overall on January 2. Certainly holding Stanford scoreless for about five minutes on January 14 is a feat that few teams in the nation can lay claim to.
And what's notable about UW's defense compared to a team like UCLA is that they will often sit in their halfcourt sets and rely heavily on rotations and help defense.
"Our defense is a little more help-side and we tend to sag back a little bit, not as much pressure," said junior post Mackenzie Argens about mid-season, echoing the words of junior Kristi Kingma. "Just depending on what team we play, depending on who the shooters are...We're smart, we're quick, we're pretty big, including myself - I feel like I take up a lot of space in the lower end of the court. I just feel like our chemistry and we talk - we just help each other out."
And when asked about who was anchoring that defensive effort, Jackson identified Argens as a person who keeps the "rif-raf" out of the key, but when talking to players throughout the year, it's a number of people: junior wing Charmaine Barlow is an aggressive perimeter defender who often draws the assignment to pressure opposing point guards, junior forward Mollie Williams is relied upon as another gritty interior defender, and Kingma is an underrated perimeter defender.
The team effort on defense has led them to the second best field goal percentage and three point percentage defense in the conference. And at their best, it's just from their ability to have faith in one another as a unit and remain consistent in their rotations.
"We are definitely more confident too - back to our defense, we're just a defensive team that's just gotten better," said junior post Mackenzie Argens mid-season. "We need to work on our offense a little bit, but that's gonna come."
To Argens' point, they kept themselves in every single one of those games above by scrapping and playing stifling defense. But those home games were ugly - UCLA's ferocious defense held Washington to a paltry 28.6% second half shooting to help them emerge victorious and the Huskies only managed to make 32% of their own shots in the second half against USC.
So while defense has unquestionably been a strength this season, offense hasn't been.
Photo by Kailas Images.
"I think we're still aiming for just a little bit more production on the offensive end," said Jackson prior to the Arizona games. "But as far as the gelling and the cohesion on the team, we're sitting pretty fantastic. I think we understand our roles, we understand what our goals are, what we're looking forward to accomplishing still and these players believe. And I think that's the biggest thing during this time - that you believe you can knock down any wall, any challenge - they definitely have that."
The Huskies are actually one of the better shooting teams in the conference - entering this weekend, they were fourth in the conference in field goal percentage (41.0%) and first in three point percentage (37.8%). The problem is that they can easily fall into periods of stagnation and turnovers - they were ninth in the conference in assist to turnover ratio entering this weekend at 0.6.
There have been countless reasons for that varying from inefficient ball handling to over-dribbling to missing open post players to standard off nights. Yet probably the most consistent reason has been that teams have keyed in more heavily on Kingma this year, throwing everything from double teams to box-and-ones at her. That has included just bumping her as she tries to get around the court, but also just trying to deny her open looks. Regina Rogers has drawn the same type of double (and triple) coverage in the post that only exacerbates their passing struggles.
"For the most part it's a high level of regard and respect for those players because they've earned that attention," said Jackson earlier this week, speaking about. "Now we just have to teach them how to be successful with that attention."
So this much can be said about the Huskies: there was definitely increased consistency between their words and actions this season and that's a significant improvement all on its own. Unfortunately, while it has been positive for their defense, their words speak to a measure of uncertainty and, perhaps ironically, inconsistency on offense.
Yet what's clear from everyone's words and performances is that the Huskies have bought into this plan predicated on defensive grit: they have faith in one another and confidence in their ability to accomplish the tasks at hand.
Both of those are significant signs of growth that is familiar beyond basketball in Jackson's opinion.
"It's like watching the kids grow," said Jackson recently. "I don't have children, but I have nieces and nephews and it's just them buying into what their parents are trying to sell to them...It's never and easy day. It's putting on your hard hat and your overalls - I know I say that a lot, but that's what it is. And when you think about that perception, that's not an easy task - you're not putting on your hard hat to go for a stroll through the park. You're going out to battle."
Jackson has laid a foundation for a successful team, but - just like the USC game - they now finds themselves in a position as a strong defensive unit with an offense so unpredictable that it undermines all of that confidence, faith, and positive feeling.
So the problem when evaluating the Huskies' season is that the progress they've made is not necessarily quantifiable - it's an intangible that is necessary, but hardly sufficient for winning.
The fans know that, the players know that, and - most of all - Jackson knows that.
And given their record, long-standing questions about Jackson's job stability are almost inevitable.
If the Huskies lose against USC tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. PST on FSN, they will fall to 11-16 overall and 6-12 in the Pac-10. That's one more loss than they had last season making that home loss to Oregon State stand out as well as the fact that they may well have lost to Oregon. With the Trojans already having beaten UW in Seattle while shooting under 30% and UW having not beaten them in LA since 2006, the chances of getting back to last year's record seems slim.
"I don't think we can lose sight of the fact that those teams are just better than they were when we played them the first time," Jackson said when asked about repeating the outstanding defensive effort in their first game against USC. "But at the same time, we have a different roster going into this game - we're better. But our defense is- it is what it is. And we're going to play it until we can't play it anymore. If we feel like we need to make adjustments within the game, we will. But we play a certain style and that's our identity.
"So I think hopefully it will afford us another [28%] shooting for the other team and that would be great. That would be just excellent."
While that all sounds great, the fact remains that they're still at the bottom of their conference and with a fourth consecutive season of inconsistency under Jackson, one could easily argue that it's time to just move on and try to go in a different direction or bring someone else in that could build upon this one-sided foundation.
On the other hand, there's more to a basketball team than their record.
"I think with any team that has a record that doesn't show their strengths it's just things that people don't see because all you see when you look at media, you see the record, you don't actually see the game," said Williams. "Even with us, we have the talent - even watching the Stanford game - we have the talent to overexcel and [overcome] people who doubt us. It's just that we gotta put the pieces together and put them all together at the same time."
With the type of defense they've played, they have shown an ability to play with anyone if they can just put together 40 minutes of even reasonable offense. In addition, they've been constantly injured, which actually impeded their progress early in the season.
So in one sense, it would be easy to say that the fact that Jackson has a) kept morale high, b) finally established an identity for this team, and c) gotten them to the point where they've bought in on one side of the court in spite of all those injuries is significant enough to give Jackson at least one another year.
"We're definitely moving in the right direction and I hope they continue that once I leave," said Morton. "But for these last few games, I'm really going to give it my all and hopefully leave behind something that can be added on to."
With Morton being the only graduating senior, consider that the core of their defensive foundation that has established an identity and faith in one another is returning. Freshmen contributors Marjorie Heard and Mercedes Wetmore will have one more year under their belt. Regina Rogers will have a team around her that's comfortable getting her the ball.
"It's defense - that's what does it," said Jackson at mid-season. "To be able to complement it with the offense, that's the icing on the cake because you can never guarantee baskets going in, but you can guarantee your effort on the defensive end and that's what our kids believe."
The things that Jackson has established are the things that records and stats simply don't capture - despite the ugly games, there's something bubbling under the surface of a loss like their early-January one to USC that is hard to just dismiss. Something is working.
So with that, perhaps Jackson gets a pass due to once again managing to defy odds to some extent despite a plethora of injuries, while simultaneously setting up a situation where next season - almost certainly even moreso than this season - becomes the make or break year; with all of those juniors that constitute her defensive foundation graduating, if she can't capitalize on it next year, the calls for a change will become impossible to ignore.
In the meantime, if building a foundation is done with the intent of creating a sustainable unit, Jackson is just going to focus on that and ignore whatever negative fan sentiment exists.
"I still get to coach basketball," Jackson said recently when asked if she ever feels stress from people questioning her job stability. "In my sleep, in real life, and that's what I love to do. So I don't really think about [that pressure]. I come out here and I get to coach and teach everyday. That's the beauty in what I do and if it's taken away at some point, then it's taken away in this situation. But I don't think about that at all."