A combination of unfortunate scheduling and heartbreaking results from winning efforts conspired leave the San Francisco Dons in the West Coast Conference's cellar at 0-5 to begin conference play.
Yet the team's convincing 85-68 win over the Portland Pilots on Saturday represents not only there first mark in the win column but also the beginning of a stretch of more winnable games moving forward.
Over the last three years, the top tier of the conference has been set in stone with newcomer Pacific immediately sliding in to expand the top tier to five teams -- the Dons opened conference play having to run the gauntlet of that top tier all at once.
Setting aside an ugly blowout loss to Pacific at home in the conference opener, the Dons showed that they're able to compete with the WCC's best: they lost to St. Mary's, San Diego, and BYU by a combined eight points. Despite losing starting guard Rachel Howard to injury within the first four minutes against perennial power Gonzaga, they stayed within 10 points in the second half before losing by 11.
The Dons managed to prove that they can compete in conference play through their first five games, despite the negative outcomes; Saturday's game was just their first chance to do so against one of the conference's weaker opponents and they took advantage, which is an improvement over past years in the Jennifer Azzi era.
The Dons entered conference play with plenty of reason for optimism after a milestone 9-2 record in non-conference play -- there were high hopes that they could earn one of the coveted top six seeds in the conference tournament's new structure. To break that new ground in the Jennifer Azzi era, one would figure that the Dons would need to steal a game against the top tier of the conference and the Dons had their chances early on.
But the win over Portland suggests that their optimism about the season overall wasn't entirely misguided.