There's never really one thing that goes wrong in a game that the victor won by nearly 40 points, but one sequence in the Pacific Tigers' 92-54 win over the San Francisco Dons on Saturday illustrated the difference between the two.
Already down by 22 points in the latter stages of the first half, the Dons started to show signs of life on the defensive end just under the four minute mark. They managed to at least temporarily stop hemorrhaging points, holding the Tigers scoreless for nearly two-and-a-half minutes. But a string of possessions with less than two minutes left in the half things completed overshadowed whatever progress they seemed to be making.
After a turnover by star junior Taylor Proctor, USF dug in with their 2-3 zone defense and denied Pacific any scoring opportunities as the shot clock slowly ticked down to its end. But just as it looked like the Dons would be able to celebrate another small victory, a slow rotation on the wing allowed clever Pacific point guard Kristina Johnson to find fellow senior Madison Parrish for a three as the buzzer sounded. Less than a minute later, USF had once again done the work to force Pacific deep into the shot clock, but sophomore Rachel Howard fouled a surrounded Emily Simons in the act of shooting right as the buzzer went of.
With Simons' two free throws, the Tigers pushed their lead to 28 points with 45 seconds left in the half. Yet it was the process that was more troubling than the product for the Dons throughout.
Poor fundamentals undermine the Dons
The two minutes of an ugly first half was a classic example of what coaches will lament as failing to finish a defensive possession -- on those two full possessions to end the half, they had done their job on defense but made critical mistakes right at the end of the shot clock to render all their work irrelevant beyond adding to the building feeling of futility. Meanwhile, Pacific just kept patiently working the ball around the perimeter until they got the shot they wanted, forcing the defense to work and waiting to exploit mistakes by a team that was struggling to find answers.
And so it went for the duration of the teams' West Coast Conference season opener: even when USF was able to execute, Pacific was just half a second quicker and more disciplined in their scheme to prevail possession by possession. Even when USF was trying to do things right, they were ultimately in the wrong.
The Dons allowed 6-foot-2 Pacific senior Kendall Kenyon to score 11 of her game-high 27 points in the first 11 minutes of the game on a series of effortless, assisted, weakside layups -- once Tigers guards were allowed to penetrate and draw help, Kenyon was left unattended on the block to easily receive the ball and put it in the basket without dribbling or even making much of a move.
With more attention devoted to Kenyon -- ineffectively given her final scoring output along with six offensive rebounds -- USF ended up struggling to guard the weakside wings as Pacific ended up scorching them for 57% 3-point shooting (12-for-21) as Kenyon continued to score inside. When they did force missed shots, the Tigers converted them into points at a rather high rate: although the Dons did win the offensive rebounding battle, the Tigers managed to score 14 second chance points off of 10 offensive boards.
On the other end of the floor, the situation was just as dire for the home team: USF was scarcely able to find scoring opportunities for their posts as they either turned the ball over in the process or were denied by Kenyon, who also finished the game with a season-high six blocked shots. Knowing the Dons were a poor 3-point shooting team, the Tigers sat in a zone for most of the game and watched them shoot 2-for-14 from the 3-point line.
But the real story of the game lies underneath those numbers: while the Dons couldn't even seem to find Kenyon to front her, the Tigers posts were in constant communication to simply step in front of Proctor and 6-foot-3 senior Paige Spietz in the paint as they maneuvered to get open. Offensively, while passes that the Dons didn't turnover over were slightly off-target or late, the Tigers calmly whipped the ball around the perimeter with pinpoint passes that set up open shooters to score almost perfectly. As the ball moved around the perimeter, Tigers guards were decisive in preparing to shoot before the catch, while Dons guards were gripped by indecision when they caught the ball.
Perhaps more disappointing than the absence of those fundamentals might have been the fact that you would've thought that USF was at least capable of competing with Pacific after a milestone 9-2 performance in non-conference play.
A disappointing beginning to conference play
The Dons entered Saturday's game undefeated at home through non-conference play and had just held the San Jose State Spartans -- then the highest scoring team in the nation -- to a season-low 62 points. It was the very defensive discipline that the Dons lacked against the Tigers that helped them beat the Spartans: getting back on defense, communicating to identify scorers, and forcing their opponent to play to their weaknesses. After years of futility, the Dons were looking more confident, cohesive, and competent than they had at almost any point in coach Jennifer Azzi's five season tenure.
Yet before we dismiss the loss as the byproduct of a program that hasn't experienced much success simply suffering a mental lapse, the difference in the opponents is important to highlight: whereas Pacific was disciplined and methodical in how they picked apart USF, San Jose State's points are scored on the strength of an almost reckless disregard for the value of possessions as they race up and down the floor shooting threes (30 against San Francisco) and attacking the basket. For those teams that can keep up, simply forcing the Spartans into their halfcourt offense calms their attack; against the Tigers, denying them points in transition is just the beginning as they are plenty capable of executing in the halfcourt.
USF entered conference play with plenty of reason to believe that this would be the season that Jennifer Azzi would finally take the program to the next level: not only the top half of the conference, but also a postseason bid that has eluded the program for so long. But the Pacific game might serve as more a harbinger of things to come than simply a wake-up call to shake off complacency borne of the best non-conference performance in 20 years. The reality is probably that the Dons still have a ways to go to truly compete with the top tier of the WCC, even as they continue to make strides.