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Portland dropped its conference opener, but there are plenty of positive signs as (hopefully) WCC play heats up.

COURTESY PHOTO: EVEN LUECKE/UP ATHLETICS - Blocked shots, such as this one in a December win at Portland State, are one way Lucy Cochrane has helped the Portland women's basketball team go 10-2 in non-conference play.Michael Meek isn't one for excuses.

Sure, his Portland Pilots women's basketball team would have had a better shot at beating Gonzaga on Jan. 6 if COVID-19 protocols had not kept post Lucy Cochrane and wing Keeley Frawley from playing. One of the top shot blockers in the nation, the 6-6 Cochrane has been a significant contributor to the Pilots' 10 wins.

Even though the Pilots lost 76-65 to Gonzaga in their delayed opening game of West Coast Conference play, their performance reflects the depth Meek is starting to build in his third season as UP's coach.

Now 10-3, Portland has scheduled home games (pending COVID-19 changes, of course) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 13, against San Francisco and at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15, against Pacific. Prior to the loss to Gonzaga, the Pilots only losses were to No. 2-ranked Stanford and to Oregon.

Veterans Haylee Andrews and Alex Fowler have led the way, and the improving depth has been noticeable. But the big difference from Meek's first two Pilots teams is the presence of Cochrane, the sophomore transfer from Oregon who averages four blocked shots a game, changes many more shots and grabs seven boards on average.

"Lucy is one of the national leaders in blocked shots and I think (her impact) goes far beyond that and includes her presence as a passer and as a scorer," Meek said. "She obviously has had an outstanding year and we're obviously looking forward to having her back."

Meek noted that the absence of Cochrane and two-year starter Keeley Frawley against Gonzaga was noticeable on the boards (the Zags' 42-27 rebounding edge was a big factor in the result). But those absences are hardly unique in today's college basketball, and meant more minutes for some young Pilots against a tough opponent.

One of those was 6-foot freshman Emme Shearer who, despite foul trouble, had 17 points, three steals and two assists against the Zags. Shearer was named WCC Freshman of the Week for that performance.

COURTESY PHOTO: EVEN LUECKE/UP ATHLETICS - One of several young Pilots contributing this season, freshman Emme Shearer from New Zealand scored a career-high 17 points. on Jan. 6 against Gonzaga."She's another great teammate. And she's not just a player that can play offensively, but she's a really solid all-around defender too," Meek said about the freshman from Auckland, New Zealand.

Meek's focus on continued improvement for every player, not only the main contributors, figures to pay off longer term, but also helps on nights when players are missing.

Meaningful minutes for players such as Shearer and fellow freshmen Maisie Burnham, MJ Bruno, McKelle Meek and Emily Sewell only figures to help the Pilots in a season where every week is unpredictable.

But for Portland to make a run at a WCC title, Andrews and Fowler need to deliver all-conference level basketball.

Andrews, the fourth-year junior guard, is averaging about 12 points, six assists and five rebounds. Her competitive toughness sets the tone for a Portland team that wants to make opponents uncomfortable with constant defensive pressure.

Fowler, the third-year sophomore 6-2 forward, is averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds this season. At halftime against Gonzaga, she hadn't scored and had settled for perimeter shots. In the second half, she became assertive and produced 17 points. Included were two timely 3-pointers — an area of focus for Fowler.

"The great thing about Haylee and Alex is, they just keep improving in more parts of the game," Meek said. "Alex has really improved in the perimeter part and it's nice to see her knock down a couple 3s. Haylee (has) two near triple doubles. She's really just proving more and more and how well-rounded she is."

Between time off for the holidays and three postponements, the Gonzaga game was the lone contest over 25 days entering Thursday's visit from USF.

COURTESY PHOTO: EVEN LUECKE/UP ATHLETICS - In her first year with Portland, guard Maisie Burnham is averaging 7.2 points off the bench. Playing at Eastern Washington last season, she was the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year.Over the next six weeks, the Pilots hope to play each of their 17 remaining WCC games and build toward a postseason run.

Meek said that, no matter what challenges come his team's way, the focus will continue to be on improvement for every player on the roster, no matter who is actually playing in games.

"I feel proud of our team and feel like we continue to improve and get better," Meek said following the Gonzaga game. "Not the outcome that we wanted, but I think that we're just continuing to have a growth mindset."

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