Wizardry in Washington
By Maureen Mullen, CNNSI.com
After the first week of conference play the polls are in, and all one can promise is this year's Pac-10 race is going to be one wild ride.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of opening week was the emergence of the Washington schools. Washington and Washington State, which finished a dismal ninth and tenth respectively in the conference race last year took the court by storm against USC and UCLA. Both the Huskies and the Cougars took two victories for the weekend, showing early that the legendary programs of the Trojans and the Bruins will not stay afloat unless they bump up their game.
Washington State's performance was especially remarkable considering it is the first time since the 1991-92 season that they have opened conference play with two wins, and the first time since 1995 that they have swept the Los Angeles schools.
"This is a huge weekend for the Cougs," said WSU coach Jenny Przekwas. "To start off the Pac-10 season with our first win since 1994 and to put them back-to-back is very big for us."
Washington State picked to finish last in the conference again this season, showed it could prevail in both nail-biter and blow-out contests. Using the momentum from its 79-78 buzzer-beater win over USC on Thursday, the team recorded its largest margin of victory versus UCLA, 74-52 on Saturday. These wins are coming from a team which posted only one conference victory all of last season.
Offensive break-outA third of the way through the season right now, most squads are finally settling into a steady offensive rotation. Coaches know who their scorers are, they know who their defenders are and the same names seem to illuminate the write-up in the morning paper.
And then every so often a player just comes out of the woodwork. Such is the case for both Stanford's Lindsey Yamasaki and Washington's Loree Payne. While both have showed in the past that they can score; Yamasaki led the Cardinal in scoring in her freshman campaign two years ago, and Payne was fourth in the conference last year as a rookie, circumstances have kept them from making huge impacts this season.
After a successful freshman season, Yamasaki played volleyball at Stanford last year, forcing her to join the basketball team in late December after the Cardinal lost in the final. While she gave Stanford some good minutes on the basketball court last season she never quite played with the confidence displayed a year ago. Now Yamasaki is back to only basketball and the dedication is showing.
Yamasaki's break-out performance came in the Cardinal's 102-98 overtime loss versus Utah in which she netted 30 points. Over the next three games the junior averaged 22 points per game, including a 21-point performance in Stanford's win over ASU on Thursday in which she went 5-for-6 from beyond the arc.
For Payne, slow recovery from a stress fracture left her sidelined for the first part of the season. She finally returned in full force on Sunday in the Huskies triple overtime win over USC, knocking down 21 points, scoring over 20 for the tenth time in her career.
With Payne back in form and teammates Giulana Mendiola and Meghan Franza already putting up impressive offensive numbers, Washington might just have the 1-2-3 punch necessary to excel in the conference this season.
Awesome ArizonaWhile the Washington schools jumpstarted their conference season in the comforts of their own floor, Arizona looked confident on the road sweeping by California before upsetting Stanford at Maples Pavilion.
The Cardinal, which was picked to finish first in the conference, has struggled with consistency all season. The Wildcats capitalized on the Cardinal's point guard woes, pressing Stanford throughout the game. While the defense forced turnovers, senior Elizabeth Pickney carried the weight on the offensive end, destroying Stanford with 18 points.
Ducks dominateOregon prevailed over Oregon State 71-67 for its tenth straight victory over the Beavers. While the Ducks boast a lengthy winning streak, the close score is more indicative of the tight play between the two squads.
Leading the way for Oregon was senior forward Brianne Meharry with 24 points. However the performance of the evening belonged to Oregon State junior Felicia Ragland, who posted 24 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
These two big-time performances showed that once again the Oregon schools could post a threat to any school.
The week aheadIn the second week of conference another slew of telling games will be contested. Perhaps the premiere match-up of the weekend is Saturday's Stanford at Oregon game. If the Cardinal can prevail at MacArthur Court they are taking huge strides to getting back on track in the conference race. Don't count out Oregon State who could also give Stanford a run for its money on Thursday.
Both Washington and Washington State will take their perfect records on the road to face the Arizona schools, while UCLA and USC will battle each other in Southern California.
Maureen Mullen is a reporter for The Stanford Daily, the student newspaper of Stanford University.