Sometimes it appears men's and women's basketball operate in completely different worlds. No doubt many readers of this site only see passing glimpses of women's basketball when coming for the second, men's game of a doubleheader, or flipping through television channels looking for a game. In my case, however, the women's game has been a regular part of my basketball-watching schedule. When my uncle started taking me to see the Portland Pilots in the 90s, we would also go see women's games. He also said that he enjoyed watching a game in which players had to be skilled as well as just bigger and stronger. It also helped that the mid-90s were the best years the Pilot women's program has ever had (or the men's team for that matter). Bill Harty covered the main rule differences between men's and women's basketball in his essay. The one difference I would point out is that when I enrolled at Portland as a student in 1999 and started playing in the band, there were no media timeouts since hardly anybody broadcast women's games in any form. Schools have since moved to streaming audio and/or video as the game's popularity has increased, and it's been at least ten years since I've watched a Division I game that didn't have media timeouts.
Jim Sollars, now in his 27th season on the Bluff, led the Pilots to four straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1994-97. He is far and away the dean of the WCC and holds the record for conference wins at 159 and has 363 total victories through the 2011-12 season. The nucleus of that team is in the university's Athletic Hall of Fame: Center Amy Claboe, forward Kristin Hepton, and guards Deana Lansing and Laura Sale all have their names on the HOF banner at one end of the Chiles Center. They, and their teammates are responsible for most of the championship banners hanging at the other end.
You might notice that these teams were so great they only won the WCC tournament and automatic NCAA bid once in the four years they went to the tournament. You might also notice the "14-0" on the 1997 banner, the first time a WCC team had gone undefeated in conference play.
Since those times the rest of the conference has caught up to Portland, who has spent the time since then in the middle and lower spots in the WCC standings. They did rise as high as 2nd place in 2008-09 and finished 4th the next two seasons but last season saw them down to seventh with a young team. As of this writing, with an even younger squad (no seniors and just three juniors) they sit at 6-12 and 1-4 in the WCC. They won their last game, on the road at Loyola Marymount, and had a four-game winning streak during their nonconference schedule. The last game of that streak, a win at home over Oregon on December 21, is the game we'll be looking back on here. It was their last win at home and a visit from a coach who will be familiar to fans below the Red Line.
The Oregon Ducks women's basketball team is the latest stop in the long coaching journey of Paul Westhead. He's coached NCAA men, the NBA, the WNBA, and now NCAA women. Very few, if any, coaches have such a varied resume. In the area this site usually covers, mid-majors, Westhead has coached at LaSalle (where he followed Tom Gola) and George Mason (where his successor was Jim Larranaga). But of course, what fans of a certain age will remember most is his time at LMU from 1985-1990, but especially the final year of his time in charge of the Lions. The offense that shattered scoring records. Hank Gathers. Bo Kimble. The Michigan game in the second round. The UNLV game in the Elite Eight. Even in the days before the barrage of sports/z coverage the Lions were the biggest college basketball story of March.
Moving forward to the present day, Westhead took over Oregon in 2009 after leading the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA title. As expected he's had the Ducks running since he got to Eugene, and it worked in his first year when the won 18 games and set a school record for points scored. However things haven't worked out as well since then, with the Ducks record getting progressively worse each season. Oregon would enter the game against Portland at 2-8 with the squad having been obliterated by injuries.
On December 21 the Pilots continued their winning streak by completely shutting down the Oregon offense to win 68-49. The Ducks came within three points with 12:31 to go. From there though, Oregon scored just three points the rest of the game. Portland played the best defense I've seen out of them in the past couple years. They were quick to pressure the ball, stole it 10 times, and deflected a ton of passes. The Pilots didn't shoot well at all, just 34%, but they didn't let the Ducks score either.
Kari Luttinen, Portland's best scorer and just a sophomore, led the way against the Ducks with 22 points and 5 steals. She's been the leading scorer on the team so far. She can shoot from outside and drive to the basket and has a bright future here. The leaders up front are Amy Pupa, who doesn't score much but is invaluable for her rebounding and interior defense, and Cassandra Thompson, who is the main scoring option in the post. Among the freshman class, Annika Holopainen and Ellen Nurmi, both from Finland, are also having very good first seasons and have lots of potential.
Since the huge win over Oregon the Pilots have lost five in a row. The main issues, as with the Pilot men, have been turnovers and an inefficient offense. Unlike the men the Pilot women have no fear of taking shots, the problem is the quality of their shots. Hopefully as the players mature they'll become smarter decision makers. For the past few seasons fans have been wondering when Coach Sollars will decide to retire. To this point the players enjoy playing for him and he seems to still like coaching. But with a new athletic director at Portland you certainly wonder a little. Whenever he leaves, I'll thank him for his service to Pilot basketball and be grateful for the opportunity to see a Pilot legend.
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