Since Day 1, Seattle U knew it was going to rely heavily on its underclassmen this season, particularly five freshman — three as primary ball-handlers. The group has quickly shown its potential.
Down 23 points nine minutes into a shootout against Oregon, instead of getting overwhelmed at the fast pace and seemingly endless three-pointers, four newcomers made good contributions to help SU get an unexpected lead and put the team in position to possibly win. Freshman G Claire Metoyer returned from injury and only played three minutes in the first half of the eventual 105-100 loss at KeyArena.
“We’ve been waiting for that moment to happen,” said senior F Kacie Sowell, the reigning Western Athletic Conference player of the year. “We have three seniors who’ve been here together for four years, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We need younger players, especially them running the point. It’s taken time but I think we’re to a place where everyone gets it.”
SU coach Joan Bonvicini pulled senior G Sylvia Shephard from the starting lineup due to an undisclosed reason, starting freshmen Alexis Montgomery and Kaylee Best in the backcourt. That decision quickly changed with the Redhawks down 7-0 . Bonvicini substituted Shephard for Best, which turned into a merry-go-round of rotations until the team found its defensive confidence to at least slow the Ducks’ offense.
Montgomery was able to run SU’s offensive sets, getting the ball inside to improved sophomore F Taelor Ross and Sowell. Later, Best made solid assists and collected a steal to help freshmen F Wilma Afunugo score five points in a 12-3 run to pull SU within 47-42 with 1:17 remaining in the opening half.
After the break, G Masha Shtikel made back-to-back three-pointers to give the Redhawks a 66-65 lead. Best’s three-pointer with 7:26 on the clock gave SU another brief lead. But tied at 90 points apiece, the outside shooting ended.
Oregon exposed Seattle U’s youthful errors late and the Ducks completed the win by making five of its final eight free throws in the final 40 seconds.
“That’s the best 30 minutes we played all year,” Bonvicini said of the turnaround after being down 31-8 with 11:39 left in the first half. “We were unselfish; we had 29 assists. We got the ball into our strength, which was both Kacie and Taelor, and Sylvia did a fantastic job. Kaylee struggled (at first), but gave a great second half and we got a lift from our bench.”
Freshmen reserves Afunugo (10 points) and Shtikel (nine) led the newcomers.
It’s the positive hidden in a 3-5 season start for the defending WAC champions, SU losing to three Pac-12 schools overall. The Redhawks will have to win the WAC’s automatic bid to reach its NCAA tournament dream but the future looks promising, including Ross. She’s started the team’s past four games and is averaging 11.4 points with 5.6 rebounds. As a freshman reserve last year behind Sowell and graduated F Brenda Adhiambo, a rebounding artist, Ross averaged 2.2 points and 1.8 boards.
SU travels to play undefeated San Diego on Sunday. The Toreros (8-0) were picked to finish second to No. 24 Gonzaga (5-1) by coaches in the preseason West Coast Conference poll. USD’s start is the best in program history, already compiling the school’s first back-to-back 20-win seasons.
“We’re on the same page,” Sowell said of lessons gained in the Oregon loss. “This is a good turning point for our season where we can really move forward.”