Women's basketball ready for Santa Clara

By The Beacon | March 6, 2013 9:00pm

As the Pilots’ regular season comes to a close, they take on the Santa Clara Broncos in the first round of the WCC Championship Tournament today at 2:30

Junior guard Alexis Byrd flies to the hoop, unafraid of San Francisco’s defense. Transition offense will be key for the Pilots to win against first-round opponent Santa Clara in the WCC Championship Tournament. (Beau Borek | THE BEACON)

By Taylor Tobin, Staff Writer tobint16@up.edu

Women's basketball will use the fuel of a close loss against WCC top-ranked Gonzaga on Feb. 28 to take them into the WCC Championship Tournament in Las Vegas March 7 against fifth-ranked Santa Clara.

"It was a great feeling because we were in front of their home crowd, it was sold out and it was also their senior night," junior guard Alexis Byrd said. "Being the underdog is a better experience to me because nobody thinks you can win, but [when you are] the top dog, everyone expects you to win."

Sophomore guard Jasmine Wooton wishes they had more faith in their ability to beat a top-ranked team.

"I feel like the only reason we didn't beat Gonzaga is because we didn't feel like we could beat Gonzaga," Wooton said. "When we were hanging with them everyone was like, 'Oh my gosh.'"

The Pilots' two conference matchups against Santa Clara were close battles that came down to the last minute. The Pilots lost their first matchup at home 59-58 Jan. 3, yet took a win back home at Santa Clara 71-68 Jan. 26.

The Pilots will need to limit Santa Clara's top two weapons, senior forward Lindsay Leo and senior guard Meagan Fulps. Leo made the All-WCC team while averaging 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Fulps was chosen as an All-WCC honorable mention, averaging 10.9 points per game.

The Pilots will need to combat Leo's rebounding abilities with UP's top rebounder junior forward Amy Pupa's eight rebounds per game. Sophomore guard Kari Luttinen's 12.3 points per game and All-Freshman Team and All-WCC honorable mention freshman forward Annika Holopainen's 9.9 points per game will be necessary to withstand Santa Clara's offense.

The Pilots are ranked seventh of the nine WCC teams in the conference going into the WCC tournament. Playing without high expectations riding on them could be to their advantage.

"It's one and done. We have nothing to lose. I don't feel like anyone expects us to do anything," Wooton said. "That's the most dangerous team, the team that has nothing to lose."

Head Coach Jim Sollars notes that the teams the Pilots will face have commonalities that help when preparing for championship play.

"Most of the teams in our conference are doing similar things," Sollars said. "We know what to expect in the conference. The teams' styles are not that different."

Despite ending the last week of league play on a couple disappointing losses, the team keeps a positive attitude about the championship tournament and sticks with a "win or learn" mentality, according to Wooton. She feels the team has grown a lot since the beginning of the season.

"We've just taken so many strides. At the beginning it was like, 'Oh no this is going to be a really long season.' But game-by-game we've gotten better," Wooton said. "It's rare that after a game we've taken a step back. We've had a lot of accomplishments honestly."

Sollars admires his team's hard work throughout the season, especially because it's something he did not have to teach them.

"They've all had a great work ethic, and I don't always say that about teams, especially young teams," Sollars said. "You usually have to teach teams how to work hard, and I haven't had to do that. I've been able to focus on teaching them technique and skills, which is what you want as a coach."

Junior forward Amy Pupa added that much of the team's success this year is due to growing together and putting aside an individualistic style that was present at the beginning of the season.

"We've taken big steps. Learning to play not as individuals but as a team has been a big thing for us," Pupa said. "The unselfishness that you see now was not there as much at the beginning of the year. I think that is a maturity thing."

The team is taking their maturity, as well as a nothing-to-lose mentality, into the championship tournament this weekend.

"We have nothing to hold back. [We] might as well go out with a bang," Byrd said. "I believe we can win."

Sophomore guard Jasmine Wooton attempts a layup over a San Franciso defender Feb. 14. Woo- ton has been a key spark to the offensive in the regular season. (Beau Borek | THE BEACON)