Meek reflects on Pilots' wild ride
One of the last real sports stories to unfold before COVID-19 shut down competition also was one of the best.
Picked to finish last in the West Coast Conference, the Portland Pilots women's basketball team capped an improbable season by cutting down the nets on March 10 as champions of the WCC tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
"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 and Southridge High, it felt like a big hire for Portland. But even the most optimistic Pilot had to be surprised by the Year One results.
The shutdown of sports has not slowed down Meek, who has focused on recruiting future Pilots and refining his playbook.
On the recruiting front, three incoming freshmen have committed to join the Pilots, including Meek's daughter, McKelle, who was the 6A girls basketball player of the year at Southridge High. Sisters Jacksen and Tyler McCliment-Call out of Spokane, Washington, who signed with Portland in November. Both can play guard or forward.
Michael Meek said he might add one more player to the 2020 recruiting class, but nothing is imminent. Kate Andersen was the only senior on last season's squad and the Pilots return a still-young core.
"I definitely feel good about all aspects of the program," Meek said. "But you can't let down on the work. This is still a new team."
The success was certainly new. By winning the WCC title, Portland women's basketball qualified to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 23 seasons. That they didn't get to play in the tournament was a bummer, but by finishing fourth in the conference, then beating the three teams it failed to beat during conference play on the way to the tournament crown, the 2019-20 Pilots set a new standard for the program.
And, they overcame their share of challenges along the way.
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.
A 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 at 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 nonleague 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, Andersen 3-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 the Pilots' 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. 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."
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.
The fact that Andrews wasn't a first-team WCC selection and that Meek was not the conference coach of the year certainly made the way things finished a bit sweeter for the Pilots.
Both the basket 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, and has changed the perception of Portland women's basketball on the recruiting trail.
"I don't think there's any question, there is a lot more excitement about our program and where we want to go as a program," Meek said.
Meek isn't wasting this pandemic-forced downtime.
"There are just so many things to do. I don't think that changes at all" because of stay-at-home orders.
In addition to the year-round task of recruiting, Meek said one of his goals for this break is to refine the Pilots playbook, analyzing what worked and what didn't work this season. He said he is working with his staff to clear up some terminology, an effort to improve in-game communication.
Even with only one graduating player, Meek sees plenty of challenges ahead as he works to make Portland a consistent title contender.
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. They certainly won't be an afterthought for opponents.
So the second version of Meek-coached Pilots should be plenty motivated to keep things rolling.
"It should be our goal to prove ourselves every year," Meek said.
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