There have been 12 30-point scoring performances by West Coast Conference players during the 2011-12 season.
Six of those belong to Loyola Marymount redshirt junior Alex Cowling, who recorded her sixth 30-point performance of the season - and third in five games - in an 80-63 home loss to the Portland Pilots on Saturday.
Obviously, the 30-point threshold is somewhat arbitrary - it's not as if scoring 30 is significantly better than scoring 29. However, for Cowling, the seemingly arbitrary threshold is just one indicator of how dynamic she's been as the nation's eighth-leading scorer.
After a 44-point loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Seattle University State Farm Holiday Classic last season, LMU coach Julie Wilholdt mentioned in passing after the game how difficult it had been to play without Cowling who suffered a season-ending foot injury after six games.
Considering what had just transpired - only five LMU players scored and three had less than 4 points - bringing up Cowling's injury was less of an excuse than a statement of fact. Cowling's 17.5 points per game on 50.8% shooting during her sophomore year wasn't necessarily a season for the ages, but it was a conference-high. It looked like she was starting to take things to the next level in the first six games of her junior year in scoring 27+ points in three straight games, but Notre Dame's defense was a challenge unlike that presented by Cal Poly, Sacramento State, or Stephen F. Austin who she had been lighting up thus far. So it was easy for the significance of Cowling's absence to get lost in everything else as someone who hadn't seen those previous six games.
But as she stated in a WCCSports.com interview a few weeks ago (video above), sitting out a season due to injury gave her the unique opportunity to absorb the game as an observer. And the benefits of that have shown this season.
Cowling's fifth 30-point performance came in a road matchup against the San Francisco Dons less than two weeks ago, which was hardly a marquee matchup in the WCC, much less the national women's basketball landscape. Neither team had much to play for except avoiding the bottom of the standings before the conference tournament. With four wins between them at the time, avoiding the cellar and the 8th vs 9th seed game in the Las Vegas tournament was about the most they could hope for - even at that time the gulf between the WCC haves and have nots was becoming quite pronounced. But Cowling put on quite a show.
It wasn't just that Cowling was filling it up in the second half to expand a 10-point halftime lead to 17 with 10 minutes left; it was that there wasn't an immediately evident means by which to stop her. She used her strong frame to take smaller players to the rim with a few decisive dribbles. When larger players gave her room on the perimeter to avoid getting beat off the dribble, she could pull up and release the ball before they could pose a worthy challenge. As a 42% 3-point shooter, knocking down threes with a hand in her face seemingly took little more effort than a mid-range shot. And yet the reason she first caught my eye was that her shooting motion was as consistent as it was textbook perfect every single time, regardless of the situation. The process of getting her feet set, eyes locked on target and releasing the ball was as efficient as her 12-for-20 shooting performance that night.
It's rare to see a player so mechanically sound even at the highest levels of basketball; the ability to score in such a diversity ways yet remain so consistent in the basics is what all players strive for. It's the reason for the hours spent in the gym practicing and the value of spending a year watching the game even if you can't play. But seeing it come together in that manner - even against a struggling team - was impressive, which is a large part of what inspired the search for more about her career: it's not just that "30 points is 30 points" so to speak, but that 30 points on 60% shooting is not something that even the most dynamic scorers can accomplish often.
Cowling is a bit more special than a good player on getting ample opportunity on a bad team.
As arbitrary as the whole 30-point milestone is, there were only eight 30-point games in the WCC last season - with no player registering more than two - and four the season before that. The records on the WCC website don't go further back than the last two years, but conference career scoring leader Heather Bowman only had four 30-point games in her entire four-year career. Bowman's Gonzaga Bulldogs teammate and WNBA lottery pick Courtney Vandersloot - second on the WCC's all-time scoring list - only had five.
And yet it's not just having six 30-point games this season that will help Cowling leave a lasting legacy in WCC lore. SB Nation's Tom Ziller wrote an interesting piece about scoring volatility among the NBA's top scorers and the potential value of consistency - sure it's nice if you can score 30 six times, but if a player who swings wildly from 30 one game to 3 the next is also unreliable. Cowling's scoring production this season hasn't been quite as consistent as her shooting form, but about as close as one might expect: she hasn't scored less than 11 points all year and 13 in conference play, coincidentally against USF. Combining that with her seemingly natural scoring ability and you have something special.
But Cowling's 30-point games are just one part of a larger narrative of one of the greatest scoring seasons by someone quickly establishing herself as among the best pure scorers in WCC history. If she can maintain her current scoring average of 22.3 points per game overall, it would be the highest of any WCC player since Martha Sheldon's best-ever 26.7 in 1992. Barring a miracle from another player this year, she'll become the fourth player in the conference's 26-year history to win the conference's scoring title more than once, something Sheldon didn't accomplish and
There's a lot of merit to Ray Floriani's point that individual skills in women's basketball have eroded over the years even as player knowledge of the game might have improved - he's hardly the first person to make that observation and it's not hard to imagine why fundamentals might fall to the wayside given the culture around today's game. Yet while that may be true, it might also be fair to say that we're slowly seeing a diffusion of talent across the national landscape. For whatever people want to say about the erosion of fundamentals in women's basketball over time, I never saw a post move - much less a 30-point performance - during my four years watching late-90's CAA women's basketball in college. Although you wouldn't know it from the major media outlets that cover the sport, there is increasing talent worth paying attention to outside of the teams ranked in the top 10 by voters who briefly scoreboard surf every week to make their picks.
To be sure, Cowling is hardly the nation's best scorer - Elena Delle Donne has that title locked up with 28.2 points per game and the ability to make 30-point games look like nothing out of the ordinary. But right now, you could make an argument that she's the best pure scorer on the west coast, independent of the record of the school she plays for or the competition she plays against.
But it's easier appreciate the growth of the game - regardless of where you stand on how much it's growing or even how it's growing - when you take a look at the players putting in work nightly outside the spotlight of the national discourse. Setting that aside, among the greatest pleasures of being a basketball fan is simply accepting what a player or team is accomplishing on their own merits and within their own particular space within the flow of the game.
Few scorers in WCC history have accomplished more in their careers individually than Cowling.