After BYU's 73-66 win at San Francisco back on February 8, I was at the media table packing up my stuff when coach Jeff Judkins came over to give his post-game radio interview with their play-by-play announcer.
6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson had just finished the game two rebounds shy of a triple-double and Kylie Maeda just recorded double-digit points in consecutive games for the first time in her career. And yet the comment that stuck with me was the coach's statement about 6-foot-2 junior forward Morgan Bailey, who was out injured for about a two-week stretch in February.
"Losing Morgan affects Jen more than anybody," Judkins said while describing why he was so proud of Hamson's big performance down the stretch that kept a feisty, yet undersized, USF team at arm's length.
Offensively, the slender Hamson is generally a player who's best cutting to the basket or working facing the basket whereas the more rugged Bailey is more adept at establishing deep position and making plays in the post or fighting for contested offensive rebounds - they're an extremely dangerous high-low combination because Hamson is obviously a big target for the guards to get the ball to in the high post and Hamson is able to dump the ball over the heads of defenders. Defensively, Bailey can take the more physical interior presence while Hamson uses her length as a weakside shot blocker or to bother perimeter-oriented forwards.
And the significance of those roles normally filled by Bailey was underscored in that game against USF.
Whereas other teams, like St. Mary's, had flustered Hamson by running doubles at her, the Dons didn't even bother for the most part - instead, they just spent most of the game sending a steady diet of their sub-6'3" defenders Hamson's way to successfully muscle her out of low post position and force her to shoot through contact. On a couple of possessions, 5-foot-7 guard Alexa Hardick was responsible for boxing her out and successfully prevented her from getting to rebounds. Defensively, Hamson was forced to guard USF's 6-foot-3 "center" Paige Spietz or 6-foot forward Taylor Proctor, both of which were threats to hit outside shots - although Proctor wasn't much of a threat that day, Spietz scored a team-high 18 by successfully hitting perimeter shots to pull Hamson away from the paint.
Obviously, Hamson still had a major impact on the game and was ultimately the deciding factor down the stretch when the ability of BYU's guards to penetrate created easy scoring opportunities on the move for her. Yet the game perfectly illustrated why Bailey is the perfect complement for Hamson: the former is the far more physical player and invaluable in giving Judkins options to help maximize the latter's strengths, especially on the defensive end.
In BYU's upset of N.C. State in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, it was Bailey who was tasked with the responsibility of containing 6-foot-5 center Markeisha Gatling, among the most efficient scorers in the nation and top WNBA center prospects in this year's class. In their second round upset of Nebraska, it was Bailey who led the team in scoring as Hamson struggled to establish anything for herself against the Cornhuskers' smaller, quicker players; whereas Hamson iced the game from the free throw line, Bailey picked up a pair of assists on consecutive possessions and later hit a cutting layup with 3:33 left to put the Cougars up by 11 while Hamson was sitting with four fouls.
Although the narrative we'll likely hear over the next few days is that Hamson has led the Cougars to the Sweet 16, the complementarity between Bailey and Hamson at the core of this unit - to the extent that Hamson is in fact a central driving force of this team - can't be ignored. And it extends out to complementary relationships across the roster that have led to such a high level of performance.
BYU's upset of N.C. State
BYU didn't look like a mid- anything in a major upset over the fifth-seeded N.C. State Wolfpack on the biggest of stages, representing the growing strength of the WCC with a well-timed team effort.
Most impressive is that BYU beat two very different teams in two very different ways. While Lexi Eaton's ability to dominate the game from the perimeter took center stage with a team-high 25 points on a team-high 19 shots in their first round upset, the Cougars leaned far more heavily on Bailey in the second round en-route to her team-high (and career-high tying) 18 points on a team-high 15 attempts. Although Maeda fouled out just short of double figures against Nebraska, she went 3-for-3 from the three point line to complement 5-foot-11 junior guard Xojian Harry's career-high tying three 3-pointers.
Statistically, the team's efficiency differential (offensive rating - defensive rating) of 30 points per 100 possessions against N.C. State is by far one of their best of the season, especially when taking the quality of opponent into account; their 60% effective field goal percentage against Nebraska is eclipsed only by their performances against Loyola Marymount, Pacific (twice), at Pepperdine, and at Weber State, none of which are defensive powerhouses. They held N.C. State to their second lowest opponent field goal percentage of the season (27%); Nebraska shot just 33% in the first half.
It would be more than fair to call this two-game run a perfectly-timed anomaly, fair to say that statistically it's highly unlikely that this team is actually able to play this well again. Yet part of what makes the outcomes so shocking is that the two best opponents on their schedule were seemingly never able to decipher the Cougars - after watching them struggle through more than one game against WCC opponents, it seemed unthinkable that their ceiling was high enough to build double-digit leads on two top 25 teams from major conferences.
As commentators have suggested during both games, some part of the poor offensive play of both Nebraska and N.C. State has to be a byproduct of simple unfamiliarity with a player like Hamson - whereas teams like St. Mary's or USF had no qualms about going right at Hamson, their more highly-regarded tournament opponents were seemingly afraid to make any sort of contact with her on either end of the court. Regardless of numbers, Hamson's presence on the floor has been undeniable. However, we can't let her 6-foot-7 presence overshadow the fact that everyone else on the roster is doing right now: what we're witnessing right now is by far the best basketball of the season from BYU against the two best opponents on their schedule this season with Hamson a second or third option offensively.
What we're witnessing is all-around excellence from the coaching staff down to their role players to strike that perfect balance of complementary individual strengths to create a powerful collective effort. That begins with a post player who almost perfectly complements their center of attention.
For more on BYU's run to the Sweet 16, check out our Lincoln region storystream.