Portland State-Portland women's basketball rivalry provides lessons for both teams
It's no shock that the more established program emerged victorious on Saturday, Dec. 10, when Portland State visited Portland for the annual women's basketball game between the Vikings and the Pilots.
It's also hardly a surprise that Alex Fowler was a big difference-maker in Portland's 71-56 win. On the afternoon that she climbed to the top of Portland's all-time career rebounding, Fowler looked the part of one of the top inside players in the West, which is how Portland State coach Chelsey Gregg described Fowler after seeing her pour in 27 points to go with nine rebounds and a couple assists.
For the Pilots, who won this crosstown rivalry for the third year in a row, Saturday's game was a final chance to play before opening West Coast Conference play. It also was a chance to adjust to playing without 6-foot-6 Lucy Cochrane, who sat out the contest with a foot injury. That made the victory a little sweeter for Pilots coach Michael Meek, whose defense rattled the Vikings into 16 first-half turnovers.
Meek said he was happy about the way his team played without Cochrane, who led women's college basketball in blocked shots a year ago and is averaging 2.5 rejections this season, there to protect the rim.
"Portland State's had a solid year so far. So, all things considered, I felt like it was a step forward," Meek said.
For the Vikings, it was a second consecutive loss and moved their record to 4-4. That might not look impressive, but coming off a 5-24 season, Portland State looks like a much more competitive outfit. That's to be expected, given that key players Esmeralda Morales, Alaya Fitzgerald, Mia 'Uhila and Rheme Ogele all saw meaningful minutes as true freshmen last season.
While very much a work in progress, and with very different goals than the Pilots, the way the Viks responded to adversity, and the way they talked after the loss at Portland, left no doubt expectations have been raised at PSU.
Gregg pointed to the second half, when Portland State took care of the ball and played with confidence and assertiveness against Portland's intense defense, as the kind of basketball she expects from her team.
She's seen flashes of that, and Gregg is happy about the poise in key moments and the competitive grit her still-young team is developing. The best examples, so far, are an overtime win at Seattle U in a game the Viks trailed by five points in the final minute and a 62-60 home win over Fresno State.
"Maybe last year we were (tied late in a game) and we didn't finish the game with the W, we didn't finish the game with great execution or hold on or stop a run when needed to. That's where we've seen the growth," she said.
Shot selection and confidence are other areas of notable improvement from the Vikings, according to Gregg.
With the tallest players listed at 6-foot-3 and the main firepower on the perimeter, Portland State is a "threes-and-D" outfit. The Vikings had 13 steals and forced 21 Pilot turnovers in that loss. They have forced 16 or more turnovers in seven of eight games and have made 10 or more steals five times.
"Defensively, our play allows us to be in games when maybe our shots aren't falling," Gregg said.
In the game at Portland, the Pilots' aggressive and quick-to-shooters defense held PSU to 5-of-18 3-point shooting, well below the Viks' 36.6% season average.
Morales, who'd made 24 of 50 3s to start the season, was 1 for 3 from distance and limited to seven points at Portland. Senior Jada Lewis was 4 for 11 on 3s against the Pilots and is 27 of 65 (41.5%) on the season.
Lewis said she'd get up 500 shots a day over the offseason, knowing a quicker release is important. That work has buoyed her confidence, she said.
"Everyone else knows I'm a shooter, so I have to get my shot up quick, or else they're just going to be up on me and I can't get any shot," Lewis said.
Confidence is a key word to describe the growth of Morales. The 5-5 sophomore guard out of Spanaway, Washington, is playing just under 40 minutes a game. It's not that much more of a workload than she carried as a freshman when she played 35 minutes per game, but Morales said she now knows more about the rigors of a college season, and how to take care of herself so she's able to stay on the floor.
With that in mind, Morales said a major focus this season is to play smart and create easy shots for herself and her teammates. "For me, I have the ball, so how can I get easier shots? How can read the defense a little bit quicker? I just want to be a little bit smarter out there instead of go, go, go," she said.
Morales said the Vikings, picked to finish at the bottom of the Big Sky Conference, are still chasing respect.
Personal goals aside, Morales said her focus is on helping raise the profile of the PSU program.
"The biggest goal is just proving people wrong," Morales said. "We have a chip on our shoulder."
While the Vikings are playing with that chip, the Pilots' aim is a championship.
The return all-conference point guard Haylee Andrews — the PSU game was her fourth as she works back from a knee injury suffered 11 months ago — should be a big lift as UP enters WCC play.
"I feel like each game, she's getting in a better rhythm, a better flow," Meek said. Andrews can fill up a box score like few in college basketball with her ability to score, rebound and assist teammates. Against PSU, Andrews scored 15 points and had four assists in 25 minutes.
Playing without Cochrane, the Pilots rode the reliable 6-1 Fowler against the Vikings. Her 27 points included making all 11 of her free throws. Her nine boards give Fowler 759 for her career, the most rebounds by any Pilot at the Division I level.
Cochrane's status for the start of WCC play was uncertain, according to Meek, who was pleased his team responded on short notice to playing without her.
Injuries aside, Meek said his team's aim hasn't changed despite a 6-5 record and some tough losses. He said the challenging early schedule, including losses to three of the Pac-12's top teams, should pay off down the road.
"That has really helped our depth and our experience," Meek said. "We have a few games in there we felt like we probably could have pulled out a victory, but our goal remains the same: try to go out and win the league and, really, try to prepare to win the league tournament. That's been our goal all along."
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