By John Crumpacker
Like revelers pounding on pots and pans on New Year’s Eve, WCC women’s basketball is making some noise nationally.
On Nov. 23, Santa Clara surprised the holy heck out of Stanford with a 61-58 upset – at Maples Pavilion, no less. It was the Broncos’ first win over Stanford since 1998 and their first over the Cardinal at Maples since 1984. Epic, in other words.
After early losses to Oklahoma, Colorado State and Georgia, BYU went to Hawaii for a tournament and bested No. 11 Texas A&M 72-64.
Closer to home, Saint Mary’s upset No. 18 Cal 64-63 in its own Cal Classic at Haas Pavilion and then beat Villanova 67-60 for the title of a tournament most everyone assumed the host Bears would win.
As WCC schools continue to use non-conference games in preparation for the start of conference season on Dec. 21, six teams are sitting pretty with winning records: San Diego (8-1), Saint Mary’s (7-2), San Francisco (7-2), Santa Clara (7-3), BYU (6-3) and Gonzaga (6-3). Pacific is at 4-4, with only Pepperdine (4-6), Loyola Marymount (3-6) and Portland (2-7) below .500.
“That’s awesome,’’ BYU’s Lexi Rydalch said. “We always cheer for the other teams in the conference when they go against bigger teams. It’s nice to see that our conference is competitive. It (makes for) better competition all around.’’
“It helps the strength of our conference,’’ BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “Santa Clara had a big win, Saint Mary’s had a big win, Gonzaga’s played probably the hardest schedule. Hopefully, we can keep improving. Preseason is important for our conference.’’
“That makes us all very proud that all the schools are doing well,’’ Saint Mary’s coach Paul Thomas said. “San Diego has one loss, USF is doing well. I think we’re all very happy when it comes to that. I wish all of them success.’’
While the Broncos had their big moment last month at Maples Pavilion, BYU and Saint Mary’s are riding high from more recent victories.
The Cougars are starting to jell with senior guard Rydalch, No. 2 in the conference in scoring at 22.6 per game, and newcomer Kalani Purcell atop the WCC rebounding list at 12.2 per game, a figure that places her No. 9 in the nation.
“This past week we just changed out mentality a little bit to step on the gas pedal and tighten up our game plan on defense,’’ Rydalch said. “That seems to have had an effect on our opponents. We’re really focusing on getting all the loose balls, the little details that set the tone. When you do those things, it sends a message to the other teams that it’s not going to be easy.’’
With her career-tying 29 points in the Cal Classic championship game against Villanova, Lauren Nicholson of Saint Mary’s is now fourth in the conference in scoring at 18.6 per game, behind USF’s Taylor Proctor (23.9), Rydalch (22.6) and San Diego’s Malina Hood (21.0).
“We definitely played a really good game against Cal,’’ Nicholson said. “We knew we had to come out firing. We knew we had it in us to fight and come out with a win. We have a lot of confidence in the system we run at Saint Mary’s. We have a lot of confidence in each other and our coaching staff. We believe we can beat anybody.’’
Four WCC teams are now ranked in the CollegeInsider Mid-Major poll this week, with Gonzaga No. 1, Saint Mary’s No. 4, San Diego No. 7 and BYU No. 9. Of the four, BYU’s RPI figure is the highest at 39, with Santa Clara at 42, Saint Mary’s at 72 and San Diego at 96. Those figures become of vital importance when the 64-team NCAA field is announced in March.
If they can continue their winning ways, the Cougars and Gaels will enter conference season brimming with the kind of confidence founded on results in non-league games.
“People should look for a real fun team to watch because we’re competitive,’’ Rydalch said. “We can compete with some of the best teams. We proved that last week. We have some dynamic players who are fun to watch.’’
One of those is Purcell, a 6-foot-2 junior from New Zealand whose status as a member of her country’s national team means she’s a Tall Fern. According to Rydalch and Judkins, Purcell presents a matchup “nightmare’’ to opponents because of her versatility. In addition to her rebounding prowess, the Kiwi is averaging 10.9 points per game.
“She’s a very good rebounder,’’ Judkins said. “Offensively, she’s figuring out how she can score. Does she go to the post? Does she drive? Does she shoot threes? She’s able to capitalize on whoever’s guarding her. She really is a nightmare. She can drive, she can shoot and she’s a great passer.’’
In Moraga, Thomas has what sounds like an ideal assignment for a coach, that being working with players who want to be coached and who listen to his instructions. In their defeat of Cal, Thomas wanted Nicholson to bring the ball up and pass to freshman Sydney Raggio for the shot at the end. That’s how it played out, although Thomas pointed out that Carly Turner’s banked three-point shot late in the first half was equally important.
“We have pretty good players that do a pretty good job of listening,’’ Thomas said. “They play very well together. There’s no secret. So many people have called (after the Cal game) and asked ‘What did you do? How did you do it?’ The very honest answer is we do our very best to put our people in the best position at all times and we expect them to make plays. And they did.’’
Thomas said he enjoys the day-to-day practice and prep work that goes into coaching a team more than he does putting on a suit on game night. The former activities affords him more time to spend with his players, and he likes that.
“We stay true to who we are,’’ he said. “We don’t have speed people. We don’t jump especially high. The best thing is they listen. Ask any coach in any sport – if your team listens and they try to do what you ask, you’re going to enjoy that team. We’ve been fortunate over the last several years. We have kids who listen and who like to be coached.’’
They and their fellow WCC teams like to make a little noise, too.
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.