Amy Kame might have stated the obvious for college basketball players this time of year, but as a senior guard for the University of San Diego women’s team, Kame understands perfectly what the month of March and the preparation for the upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament Championships in Las Vegas means, both to her and her teammates.
“We’re really focused and excited to go out there and start a new season,” she said. “The preseason’s over, and that was great. The conference (regular) season is over; now it’s about starting a new season, the postseason.”
Starting Friday with the USD women’s team opposing St. Mary’s in an 8 p.m. game and continuing Saturday when the USD men’s team plays San Francisco at noon, the reset button will be pushed. A clean slate means it is up to Torero players to create something special.
“It’s fun,” junior point guard Chris Anderson said about preparing for his third WCC Tournament at the Orleans Arena. “There’s energy and excitement and that’s what I live for, that’s what college basketball is all about. I believe our team is focused and we feel we’re capable of winning the tournament.”
This year’s tournament is new in two ways. Now with a 10-team conference, the WCC adopted a new format that eliminates the top two teams receiving a double bye into the semifinals.
“Everyone plays in the quarterfinals now,” said USD men’s coach Bill Grier, whose team (16-15, 7-11 WCC) enters as the tournament’s sixth seed, a spot that prevented the Toreros from having to play an opening-round game on Thursday. “The top teams have to win three games in this new format and that opens it up a little more.”
USD’s women’s basketball coach Cindy Fisher said her team (22-7, 11-7) is seeded fifth in the tournament and is right in the thick of it. They’re playing the fourth-seeded St. Mary’s, a team the Toreros split with in their two regular-season games. A great showing by Fisher’s team, which at one time had a 15-0 record and was ranked No. 24 nationally, is key.
“The top five teams were separated by one or two games … I think our conference has two or three bids for the NCAA Tournament depending on how the (WCC) tournament shakes out. I think five or six teams will be in the NCAA or NIT postseason. There’s a lot of respect for our conference.”
Another key factor is BYU’s presence and its long-standing practice of not playing on Sundays. As a result, this Sunday will be a tournament day off for everyone. A win Friday night by the USD women would result in a full, two-day layoff until Monday’s noon semifinal. A win Saturday by the USD men puts them into the semifinal on Monday night and the ESPN/ESPN2 spotlight. Tuesday’s title games are to be played at 1 p.m. for the women on ESPNU and 6 p.m. on ESPN for the men.
Both Torero teams enter the tournament with some work to do.
The women’s team is expected to have senior forward Felicia Wijenberg back in the lineup after she missed the team’s last three games due to a broken finger injury suffered against Portland. While Kame, named a first-team All-WCC player earlier this week, provides scoring (a team-high 16.8 points per game average), distributes the ball well (112 assists) and has a team-best 64 steals, Wijenberg’s return bolsters USD’s ability to match up better against St. Mary’s Danielle Mauldin and Amanda Arter.
“It changes our team dynamic a lot having her out there,” Kame said of Wijenberg’s anticipated return. “We’ve been dealing with injuries and setbacks this season, but having her out there, as a leader and as a captain of our team, will help a lot.”
Wijenberg’s absence allowed Kameron Knutson to play significant minutes. Joining her was Brooke Jelniker, who shifted from guard to forward when Katelyn McDaniel went down with a season-ending injury in December, and with the shot-blocking prowess of Sophia Ederaine always present, there is significant depth inside. In addition to Kame, Malina Hood, a WCC honorable mention, is a key offensive weapon as the team’s second-leading scorer (12.7 ppg, team-high 67 three-pointers).
Meanwhile, the men’s team, led by junior guards Johnny Dee and Anderson, hopes to have Duda Sanadze back in the lineup against the third-seeded Dons, who swept the teams’ two WCC games this season. The Toreros’ second-leading scorer injured his ankle in USD’s 78-70 home loss to BYU last Saturday. If he can’t go, it will be up to Dee (16.9 ppg), Anderson and big contributions from senior Dennis Kramer, Jito Kok, Simi Fajemisin, Brett Bailey and others to make up for the absence. Still, the Toreros finished the regular season winning three of its last four games. Included in that was a home win over Gonzaga to snap an 11-game skid. The last time USD beat Gonzaga came in winning the 2008 WCC Tournament title game. It’s also the last time the USD men won the conference tournament.
The women last won the WCC Tournament in 2008 — also against Gonzaga — but they’ve been to the title game in 2009 and 2013. The program has gained credible postseason experience with successful runs in the WNIT. Fisher’s teams have traditionally been consistent at conference tournament time. She’s hoping for another strong showing this year.
“Our players understand when we talk to them at the beginning of the season about wanting to be playing our best this week,” she said. “We want to continue to get better and we want our younger players to be maturing at this point of the season. With some of the adversity that we’ve gone through this year, it’s put a lot of playing time into people that maybe weren’t getting as much as before, so they’ve had to grow up the last few weeks. That’s been a silver lining for us.”
It’s time for it to shine in this new season.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of USD Athletics and scottphoto.net