No suprise anymore
The 2019-20 season for the women's basketball program at the University Portland was supposed to be transitional.
Turned out, it was transformational.
Now, in this strangest of seasons, second-year coach Michael Meek and his staff hope to build off of the Pilots' unexpected run to the West Coast Conference tournament championship and the program's first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997.
With four starters back from a team that went 21-11 and some potentially impactful additions, there is plenty of optimism around a program that's clearly on a positive trajectory.
But, as special as last season was, Meek emphasizes it was only a small step toward building the program he envisions.
"We jumped way ahead of where we expected to be (last season)," Meek said. "But we know we still have a lot of work to do, a long way to go."
They do have to replace their best leader in guard Kate Anderson, who capped her four years at Portland with a strong senior season.
Despite practice restrictions only recently lifted, the Pilots opened the season with an 82-70 win on Nov. 25 at Seattle U.
In the COVID-19 era, a lot of that work was individual skill development.
For 5-9 junior guard Haylee Andrews, a team leader who hit two dramatic shots in the Pilots' run at the WCC tournament, some of that work was on quickening the release on her shot and improving 3-point shooting.
For sophomore post/wing Alex Fowler, ball handling and perimeter shooting were among the areas of focus after a breakout freshman season.
Andrews and Fowler, both from Townsville, Australia, each are on the preseason all-WCC first team. Despite fighting through ankle injuries as a sophomore, Andrews averaged 16.0 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. Her 5.5 assists per game led the WCC and was 17th best in the nation.
Fowler was the WCC Newcomer of the Year and MVP of the conference tournament. She led the conference in scoring (18.0), making the fourth most baskets in the nation (242) and averaged eight rebounds a game. She started her sophomore season with 17 points and 17 rebounds in the win at Seattle U.
The Pilots are 1-1, having played No. 9 Oregon close for a half in their second game — a contest Andrews missed because of a concussion.
The other returning starters are 5-7 senior shooting guard Maddie Mulheim and 6-5 senior center Lauren Walker. Mulheim, from Sunset High, enters the season fourth on the UP career list for made 3-pointers (177) and needing to make 47 to become the program's all-time leader.
Other returnees who played in every game a year ago are 6-0 sophomore forward Keeley Frawley, a member of the WCC all-freshman team, and senior guard Jayce Gorzeman.
Six-foot sophomore Liana Kaitu'u was a starter for the first six games last season before she was felled by injury.
Rose Pflug, a 5-11 guard out of Sunset High, redshirted last season after transferring from Pepperdine, where she shot 41 percent from 3-point distance as a freshman. In the opener, she played 31 minutes and had 14 points and eight assists.
Despite being limited in practice because of COVID-19 restrictions banning full-contact scrimmages, Meek has been pleased with the progress he sees.
"It has been really good to see just the confidence of all the players after having a year to get used to the way we do things," Meek said, noting that there is not the need to teach things such as how to run drills.
Meek and his staff added some significant pieces in recruiting — players who figure to help the program grow beyond this season. That group includes Meek's daughter. A 5-7 guard, McKelle Meek was a four-year starter at Southridge High and Oregon's Gatorade Player of the Year last season.
The other incoming freshmen are sisters Tyler McCliment-Call and Jacksen McCliment-Call and 6-0 Emme Shearer, from Aukland, New Zealand.
Shearer had a nice debut, scoring 14 points in 19 minutes at Seattle U.
The disruption of COVID-19 through the summer and fall might delay some the transition to college basketball for what Meek believes is a talented freshman group.
A key transfer is 6-5 sophomore center Lucy Cochrane. An Australian who saw limited time as a freshman at Oregon last season, Cochrane has not yet joined the team because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
A year after landing at the bottom of the preseason poll of WCC coaches, the Pilots were tabbed to finish third this season — behind Gonzaga and BYU — and had one first-place vote. That's clear evidence that Portland isn't going to surprise opponents this season.
Barring a pandemic-related change, the Pilots will host Seattle U at noon on Sunday, Dec. 6, a game slated to be televised on NBC Sports Northwest.
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