By John Crumpacker @CrumpackerOnWCC
Life in the top half of the WCC women’s standings is about to get a lot more interesting on the last day of 2015 and the second day of 2016.
SANTA CLARA is galloping along with an 11-game winning streak that should grow to 12 when the Broncos, 11-2 overall, play at PORTLAND on Thursday. At 2-11 and 0-2 after the first week of conference play, the Pilots are clearly rebuilding under second-year coach Cheryl Sorenson, who is incorporating six new players on the team.
Though picked for seventh in the conference before the season started, Santa Clara has put together the program’s longest winning streak in more than a decade, since the 2001-02 bolted to a 12-2 start to that season.
It’s fair to ask how the heck the Broncos are doing it. Consider these fascinating WCC factoids:
*No Santa Clara player is in the top 10 in scoring.
*No Santa Clara player is in the top 10 in rebounding.
*No Santa Clara player is in the top 10 in assists.
*No Santa Clara player is in the top 10 in 3-point field goal percentage.
*No Santa Clara player is in the top 10 in 3-point field goals made.
*No Santa Clara player is in the top 10 in minutes played.
That’s a whole lot of “no’s’’ for a team accomplishing a whole lot of “yesses’’ this season.
The last stat about minutes played may be the most telling. With nobody playing heavy minutes, the Broncos are obviously big on balance, on spreading the wealth. They are also big on defense, as guards Taylor Berry and Savanna Hanson are 1-2 in the conference in steals and forward Morgan McGwire is tied for seventh. As well, McGwire and teammate Lori Parkinson are tied for fourth in blocked shots.
So Santa Clara plays a lot of people and comes up with a healthy amount of steals and blocks. In lieu of a 20-point scorer, that seems to be working for coach J. R. Payne’s team, which is outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points per game. After Portland on Thursday, the Broncos have a more challenging assignment on Saturday when they play GONZAGA in Spokane.
If Gonzaga gets past SAN FRANCISCO (9-4, 0-2) on Thursday – certainly no given – and Santa Clara takes care of business at Portland, then Saturday’s game between the Bulldogs and Broncos will be for the early lead in the WCC. The atmosphere in the McCarthey Center should be lively for Saturday’s game since Gonzaga far and away leads the conference in average home attendance at 5,514.
For Gonzaga, 6-foot-5 center Shelby Cheslek is averaging 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, numbers that suggest NIMBY is her operating principle, as in Not in My Backyard when it comes to opponents looking for rebounds and inside shots. She’s Gonzaga’s career leader in blocks with 177 – and surely counting.
After Santa Clara and Gonzaga atop the WCC standings at 2-0, four teams are grouped at 1-1 (SAINT MARY’S, LOYOLA MARYMOUNT, PACIFIC and PEPPERDINE) and looking for breathing room, while 11-1 SAN DIEGO had just one conference game last week and is 1-0.
The Gaels are off to a 10-3 start overall and their game on Saturday at San Diego could reveal which team is a serious contender in the conference. The Toreros have one of the best players in the conference in 5-10 guard Malina Hood. She’s second in the WCC in scoring at 21.3 per game and also averages 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. Her twin sister, Maya, similarly 5-10, pulls down 9.1 rebounds per game as a frontline player while scoring at a 15.1 clip.
Saint Mary’s Lauren Nicholson is averaging 19.1 points per game, a figure that reflects her knack for getting to the free throw line. She’s currently No. 2 in the NCAA in free throws made, 81, and No. 5 in free throw attempts, 94.
In San Francisco, the Dons saw their seven-game winning streak end once the conference season began with losses to Saint Mary’s and Pacific. USF is 9-4 and 0-2 and faces a challenging assignment on Thursday at Gonzaga. Forward Taylor Proctor is third in the conference in scoring at 21.2 and the Dons will need every point they can get out of the 6-foot senior.
BYU has a pair of home games this week vs. Saint Mary’s and Pacific that will feature the conference’s leading scorer, Lexi Rydalch, and leading rebounder, Kalani Purcell. Rydalch is at 23.3 points per game and looks to wage a season-long battle with Malina Hood and Proctor for scoring honors in the WCC. Rydalch is the first BYU player to reach 2,000 points since the school joined the conference. Purcell, meanwhile, is among the national leaders in rebounding and a key addition to the 2015-16 Cougars.
Pepperdine is one of four teams in the conference off to a 1-1 start but the Waves’ 5-8 overall record is easy to reckon. They are 4-2 at Firestone Fieldhouse and 1-6 away from Malibu.
Of interest to fans of women’s basketball is the fact that Pepperdine has not one but two Ogwumike’s after Stanford seemingly cornered the market on stellar players with that surname. Indeed, freshman Erica and sophomore Olivia are younger siblings to Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, who starred for Stanford and are now playing in the WNBA. For Pep, Erica is averaging 17.0 points and 7.5 rebounds, tops on the team in both categories.
Opponents of Pacific must have a difficult time coming up with scouting reports because the Tigers are so balanced. Already this season 10 players have scored in double figures for coach Bradley Davis’ streaky team. Pacific has a tough road swing this week, playing at 11-1 San Diego on Thursday and at 8-4 BYU on Saturday.
Loyola Marymount is one of those four teams to start the conference season 1-1 but its overall mark of 5-8 is perhaps more telling. The Lions are off Thursday and host Pepperdine on Saturday.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.