The caveat is USC, which is on a five-game win streak overall, defeated UCLA on the road Dec. 30 — four days before the Pac-12′s big opening weekend with all 12 teams. The start in conference play is the best for USC (10-5, 3-0) since 1993-94 when the Trojans posted a 10-0 record in the first stretch of Pac-10 play.
For WSU (9-6, 3-0), the quirk is it played three games in five days as part of the conference’s new scheduling to accommodate the addition of No. 17 Colorado and Utah two years ago. The Pac-12 also installed an intentional back-to-back rivalry play the same week to allow it to move up its conference tournament for more television exposure heading into NCAA tournament selections.
WSU started 3-0 during the 2011-12 season, finishing conference play at 5-13 overall.
That start was the true focus of the Cougs on Monday when it beat Washington (8-6, 1-2) for the first time since February 1995. The rematch is Saturday at 3pm at Alaska Airlines Arena. The game will air on Pac-12 Networks.
“Our tough preseason definitely helped us,” WSU coach June Daugherty said of beating then-No. 10 Nebraska (76-72) on the road in November and experiencing tough losses at BYU (80-73) and against then-No. 24Gonzaga (70-62) in December. In both losses, the Cougs worked themselves back into position to win but couldn’t hit free throws or get defensive stops to pull the upset.
Yet, the breakthrough win of the season may be snapping the streak against Washington. WSU celebrated on the court like it won a title, then dismissed the significance to media in postgame interviews.
In stating constant “talk” about “the streak” was “silly,” Daugherty attributed the repetitive question to former Seattle Times reporter Dick Rockne, who retired in 2001 after a 37-year career. But in covering “the streak” since 2007, Daugherty did her share of repetition in making sure I knew she started said streak.
“It’s interesting, because I’m the one that started the streak and now I’m the one in charge of stopping the streak. It’s kind of weird in that way,” Daugherty told me in 2011. “That in itself is a pretty big charge. So, just staying focused on that and trying to keep the personal side out of it is very, very important.”
I’m probably the only one who feels relief now that “the streak” is over. Now I can write about the teams that finally have the pieces to make this a true rivalry for the upcoming decade. You know, by WSU winning more than Tuesday in the upcoming 18 years.
G Lia Galdeira is an incredible talent, Canadian junior Shalie Dheensaw is willing to put in work to be an anchor inside and Daugherty seems to have grown from errors at UW to be a better coach for WSU. On the other side of the state, you have two-time All-Pac-12 G Jazmine Davis, high school All-Americans Katie Collier (2012) and Kelsey Plum (2013) and F Talia Walton, who’s near averaging a double double despite knee pain.
It adds to a possibility of at least three more must-see matchups between the schools, including Saturday.
But some truths have to be told about WSU’s historic win on Tuesday. Mainly the mismatches created by injuries and a key mistake by first-year UW coach Mike Neighbors.
First the error, Neighbors admitted he sat F Aminah Williams too long in the opening half. Yes, the junior was tagged for two quick fouls. But post play was the key in keeping UW close despite another sluggish start like the one in a loss to ASU on Sunday.
Collier and freshman C Chantel Osahor were substituted into the game for Williams, Collier tying the score at eight points with 14:16 remaining. She tied the game, again, at 14 points apiece with 10:27 left in the opening half. Neighbors had to take her out of the game, however, because she’s still returning from a hamstring injury and limited in minutes.
UW was down 22-16, Galdeira and Alexas Williamson hitting three-pointers to show it was ready to counter to UW’s zone. Instead of re-entering Williams, Neighbors went with Mathilde Gilling. The Danish junior is improving but not enough to be in a pivotal game at a teetering moment.
WSU continued its 16-4 run by driving shots inside to build a 30-18 when Collier was placed back into the game.
She helped work the lead down to 38-32 on a made FT with 1:33 left in the half, Galdeira making show-stopping plays off missed baskets by Davis and Plum — the final breaking down Davis’ defense by working the UW star into bumping into Collier for a layin at the horn sounding halftime.
Based on the start, Williams playing at any point during the half likely would have prevented the once 13-point deficit for UW and 42-32 haltime lead for WSU.
“There was a little bit,” of second-guessing in putting Williams back in the game in the first half, Neighbors said. “She’s so valuable to us. I probably should have played her earlier. I trusted her. She never even got the third foul (in the game). It disrupted her flow a little bit.”
As expected, Davis rallied her team back into the game in the second half. She hit two three-pointers early, scoring 20 of her final 27 points after the break. Collier, again, was making key defense moves to alter shots and get one block.
But she was knocked out of the game for good with 9:13 left and UW down 63-60, matching WSU three-pointers with its own. Collier, who’s worked her way back from cancer and a season-ending knee injury last year in addition to the hamstring, knocked her head did not to even move once the injury happened on a loose ball.
“It hurt us emotionally because Katie is that person for us,” Davis said. “She plays a big part in (our) energy. So, it was kind of sad, like ‘Whoa! Katie are you OK?’ We were a little worried for her, especially with the injuries that she’s had. It was nothing like that…but it was a loss. We handled it pretty well.”
Collier walked off the court on her own and appeared fine after the loss. The difference in the game was obvious, however, in the ensuing mismatches. Dheensaw, who’s 6 foot 4, got two putbacks over UW senior Mercedes Wetmore (5-8) and Williams (6-0) to put the Cougs up 80-76 with 58 seconds left in the game.
Plum pulled UW back within two. Unlike last year, though, Galdeira iced the win with two made FTs with 15 seconds left.
“It’s a really good team,” Neighbors said of WSU. “There’s enough teams in the country that’ll vouch for it. For us to be able to come back like we did, there’s nothing to change. We have to do what we did better for longer.”
Osahor, another player working her way back from injury, couldn’t hit a heave from beyond halfcourt with three seconds left to win at the buzzer. As a side note, she nailed a seated trick-shot from the stands at practice on Monday, so the possibility of the game-winner wasn’t that unrealistic.
Dheensaw, the difference-maker in the game, had 10 of her final 11 points and nine of her final 14 rebounds after the break. It was her first career double-double, averaging 12.6 minutes off the bench last year.
“Shaile had her best game as a Coug,” Daugherty said. “We’ve been doing two-a-days with the frontline since we came back after Christmas. They were not happy with the way that they were playing. They obviously responded big with the first three wins in the Pac-12.”
Galdeira said the game-scout was to stop Plum, not Davis. The reigning Pac-12 freshman of the week, Plum was 2-for-4 from the field after the break. She finished with 11 points overall. But UW shoot 53.6 percent from the field in the second half.
Williams never scored again after her early two baskets.
You can’t dismiss WSU’s improved play this season with the UW glitches. The Cougs are on a different mission.
WSU considered it a “slap in the face” to be picked to finish ninth in the conference in preseason polls and is using it as motivation. It seems to have the right team to end that misconception, too.
“We have the leadership now and the talent now to understand you have to come out and play for 40 and get it done,” said Daugherty, who has three seniors on the roster. “When we’re healthy (and) our inside game is improving, we can beat anybody. We’ll use this as a confidence builder and we’ll keep growing.”