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PAUL DANZER/ON COLLEGE HOOPS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/New coach Mike Meek has Portland off to encouraging start

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND ATHLETICS - Michael Meek brings a winning pedigree to the Portland Pilots women's basketball program, which has started 6-3 despite injury challenges.It has been more than two decades since women's basketball at the University of Portland was a consistent force in the West Coast Conference.

The hope, of course, is that that can change now that Michael Meek is running the Pilots' program. Meek had incredible success at Southridge High (213-58, five state titles) and then at George Fox University (230-35, two NCAA Division III championship games).

It's early days for Meek, but there are encouraging signs.

Portland is 6-3 entering Sunday's cross-town rivalry game against Portland State. Tipoff is at 2 p.m. at the Chiles Center. So far, despite injury challenges and having only one senior, the Pilots have found ways to win.

"It's been a great start. Other than having so many key injuries, it's been neat to see them work through the adversity they have," Meek said. "I'm very pleased with where we are, but I also know we have a lot more room to grow.

Two of the first three WCC players of the week were Pilots. Sophomore guard Haylee Andrews was honored for the first week and freshman Alex Fowler was honored in the third week.

Andrews has missed five games because of a rib injury. She is expected to return, but is considered "month to month," according to Meek.

The top returning scorer (11.8 points per game), the 5-9 Andrews notched a career-high 28 points in a Nov. 9 win at Weber State. She is one of three Australians who have played significant roles early in Meek's first season.

Fowler, a 6-1 forward, brings extensive experience in Australia's national team system to Portland. She was a starter for the Aussie team that in July lost to the United States by four points in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup. She averaged nine points and 10 boards in that tournament.

"It's been really fun watching her develop in such a short time. And knowing she still has a great ceiling," Meek said. "She's a perfect fit for our program. What I really appreciate about her is her versatility and what a great teammate she is and how humble she is. Those kinds of things add up and will go a long way for her future."

Fowler has been a go-to player down the stretch in several games, beginning with a tight opening win at Utah State. She is averaging 18.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals and a 1.3 blocked shots.

Jesuit High graduate Kate Andersen is the only senior and has led with her defense. Andersen is making three steals per game and averaging 14.1 points and 3.2 assists.

"I think the willingness to accept change, she's been fantastic about. On the court she brings outstanding energy. She's a really good athlete. She plays really hard," Meek said. "We're watching her improve in terms of settling into offensive things and playing with a little slower tempo offensively."

Maddie Mulheim, a 5-7 junior out of Sunset High who started 20 games last season, is starting and averaging 10.2 points and two steals a game.

Keeley Frawley is another freshman from Australia who has gotten off to a good start. The 6-foot forward is an excellent perimeter shooter who is making 48% of her 3-pointers while averaging seven points and 4.2 rebounds. She has been starting while Andrews is injured.

"She's another really competitive player. She's really versatile in her ability to shoot the 3 and score around the rim both," Meek said. "She also has potential to be an elite defender because of her motor and work ethic."

Liana Kaitu'u, a 6-0 sophomore forward from Salt Lake City, started the first six games and was averaging 7.6 points and five rebounds before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 23 at Air Force.

The injured list includes junior guard Josie Matz, sophomore guard Erika Kankfelt and junior forward Kristina Wooldridge. Matz, who played in 28 games last season, is rehabbing a knee injury suffered late last season and is a candidate to redshirt. Kankfelt, who has not yet played this season, and Woodridge, who played in four early-season games, were considered day to day entering this week.

Rose Pflug, a 5-11 junior guard from Sunset High who transferred to Portland after two seasons at Pepperdine, is considered week to week and might wind up redshirting.

Meek did not experience so many significant injuries in a season while at George Fox and admits that having nine healthy players has been a challenge. But the coach remains optimistic.

"I've been kind of thrilled with the way the season is going," Meek said. "There's been a lot of positive things going on, not just in the win-loss column, but with how well these athletes have been dealing all of the adversity they've faced and how many different players we've already had step up."

Those in the regular rotation include 6-5 junior post Lauren Walker, 6-0 junior guard Jayce Gorzeman and 5-7 freshman guard Kelsey Lenzie.

Despite playing four of their first six games on the road, the Pilots shot the ball well from the get-go.

"The team's doing a really good job of not settling (for shots) and instead of taking a good shot maybe sharing it one more times for a great shot," Meek said. "It's been neat to see that they're really working hard to get the best shot possible."

Meek sees defense as a work in progress as the players get more familiar with their roles. And he is looking for more consistent defensive rebounding.

Portland's second-half performances have been encouraging. In their first five games against D-I opponents — four on the road — the Pilots outscored their foe by a total of 48 points after halftime.

"I've really been happy with our second halves in particular," Meek said. "The team has made some good adjustments and is working hard and had good attitudes."

After going 33-117 the previous five seasons, the real measuring stick for the Pilots will be the West Coast Conference season, which begins Dec. 29 at Gonzaga.

"We're still trying to identify what areas we need to improve the most," Meek said. "I expect to be a much different team in March than we are in November, and I think even more so because we have a brand new staff. There's some real positive things going on. There's not a lot of substitute for experience together."

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