Among the plethora of compelling stories served up during the 2019-2020 college basketball season, the University of Portland women's basketball team delivered a uniquely improbable plot.
The Pilots were picked to finish at the bottom of the West Coast Conference standings.
Yet, on March 9, there they were, dancing on the court in Las Vegas as winners of the WCC tournament.
"It couldn't have been a story written any better," first-year coach Michael Meek said.
Well, the chance to play an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 23 years would have been nice. But the strides the Pilots made over the winter were impressive.
Given Meek's track record of success at George Fox University and Southridge High School, it felt like a big hire for Portland. But even the most optimistic Pilot had to be surprised by the Year One results. Meek amassed a 230-35 record in nine years at GFU, including two appearances in the NCAA Division III national championship game. He was hired at UP following the end of his ninth and final season in Newberg.
The season in Portland didn't start out smoothly. Guard Rose Pflug, a Sunset High grad and junior transfer from Pepperdine, was unable to play and used her redshirt season. During the sixth game of the season, starter Liana Kaitu'u went down with a season-ending knee injury.
An ankle injury cost sophomore point guard Haylee Andrews five games prior to conference play.
With a new coach, such disruption wasn't ideal. But the way Meek and the Pilots handled that adversity was indicative of the competitive toughness they would build as the season unfolded.
"We showed some growth through that," Meek said. "We lost a few games without Haylee playing, but I felt like it really helped other people get experience in different roles."
The Pilots opened WCC play with three road games. They had a 20-point lead in the first half of their conference opener but lost by five to a ranked Gonzaga team in Spokane, Washington. They broke through in their third game, a 57-48 win at BYU.
"I think the win at BYU (was big). That's not an easy place to go get a road win at," Meek said. "I just felt like it progressed throughout (the season). We played a non-league schedule that was a competitive one and then we stepped into our league and just really kept getting better."
A mid-January trip to the Bay Area produced narrow wins at San Francisco and Santa Clara, the latter on a buzzer-beating Kate Andersen three-pointer.
"That to me was a big thing," Meek said, "showing the toughness it takes to go on the road and be successful —the team's ability to go on the road and just say we're here to play, not being one bit intimidated by the moment."
Andersen, a Jesuit High grad and lone senior, set the tone throughout the season. She averaged 14 points and more than two steals per game and was an honorable mention all-conference selection.
"Kate brought such amazing leadership — her energy that she brought for every game, her positiveness and her coach-ability and her desire to stay hungry all season long, it was pretty special," Meek said. "I'm so happy for Kate. She hit so many big shots for us and just had such a great senior year."
For Andersen, the season was about making the most of each day and enjoying time with her teammates. And it was about trying to get the most from one season under Meek.
Wins aside, Meek said he enjoyed this team as much as any he has coached.
"This was a real special group," he said. "The one thing that made this team different than any team I've had is just the fact that they were picked to finish last. Such a Cinderella story. That's something that just doesn't happen."
Of course, the Pilots' success was a result of more than just trusting a process and a group of teammates. College basketball teams don't win without talent and the Pilots have some unique talent in Andrews and fellow Australian Alex Fowler.
Fowler was an all-WCC first-team selection and the conference newcomer of the year who led the WCC in scoring (17.5). She was second in the conference with .542 shooting and fifth on the rebounding list (7.9). She was joined on the WCC all-freshman team by Pilot forward and fellow Australian Keeley Frawley.
Andrews was second-team all-conference as a sophomore after finishing third in scoring (15.9) and first in assists (5.7, 14th in the nation) in the WCC. She hit game-deciding shots in the semifinal win over Gonzaga and twice in the WCC championship victory over San Diego.
Both the baskets that beat Gonzaga and the one that sent the championship game into overtime came on the same play out of a timeout, with Andrews driving off of a high-post screen and hitting a contested close-range attempt.
After the play produced the winning basket against Gonzaga in the conference semifinal, Meek went right back to it with his team down two points in the final minute of the fourth quarter of the final.
Meek wasn't concerned that San Diego might know the play was coming.
"It was more about putting the ball in your point guard's hand and trusting that she would make the right decision," he said. "My hope was she would be able to get to the rim. She's been a great finisher all season long. But I also knew that if somebody was to stop her, she is a very good decision-maker and led the league in assists."
Meek's confidence, and his players' confidence in themselves, was evident when Portland fell behind Gonzaga by 20 points early in the semifinal.
"I'm just really proud of the team as far as just how they didn't lose composure and kept sticking together," Meek said.
One championship is a good start, but even with Andersen the only graduating player, Meek sees plenty of challenges ahead as he works to make Portland a consistent title contender. While recruiting is on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, Meek is looking to add to an incoming class that includes versatile sisters Jacksen and Tyler McCliment-Call, guard/forward players out of Spokane who signed with Portland in November.
The Pilots were not the only young team in the WCC this season, so this season's success won't mean much heading into 2020-21.
"Our players are going to need to have a great offseason and spend time working on their game," Meek said. "It's nice to know that we had such a great first year. I think it will add some confidence. To me, it's always a work in progress."
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a hold on the type of work Meek can do, including in recruiting. But, as he waits, Meek can reflect on a memorable first season at Portland.
"We were one of the last (sports events) that took place for who knows how long," he said. "It was a cool experience to go along for the ride with this team."
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