by Rob Moseley
One of UO women's basketball coach Paul Westhead's maxims is that he begins to get a sense of what sort of team he's got six or seven games into the season.
Now, that's not a perfect indicator; in both 2010 and 2011, the Ducks were 6-1 through seven games before suffering through losing seasons. But injuries later in the year greatly affected those marks.
The theory held true in Westhead's first season in Eugene, 2009-10, when the Ducks went 6-1 before reaching the WNIT. And it most certainly held up last season, when Oregon started 0-7, on the way to a four-win season.
If those middle two years illustrate anything, it's that a lot could change between now and March for the Ducks. But as the UO women found out in those bookend winters of 2009 and 2012, a start can illustrate a lot. Which is encouraging news for the Ducks in 2013-14.
After Wednesday's 105-100 win at Seattle U, the Oregon women are 5-2, with one of those losses at No. 1 Connecticut. The Ducks have already bested last season's win total, and won their last two games - Wednesday at Seattle U and Sunday versus Princeton - with strong finishes.
In both cases, the Ducks were tested down the stretch, and answered in victorious fashion.
"I think our players recognize that a 40-minute effort, a second-half effort, really decides the game," said Westhead, who called Oregon's effort over the final 20 minutes against Princeton "as good as I've seen this season."
To be sure, nearly losing a big lead at Seattle U wasn't a particularly encouraging development. But a year ago, the Redhawks might have come all the way back against the Ducks. Freshman Chrishae Rowe's school record 41 points certainly helped this season. A year ago, Oregon probably wouldn't have rallied to beat Princeton, a four-time Ivy League champ and NCAA Tournament qualifier.
Against Seattle U, the Redhawks battled back from an early 23-point deficit to take the lead in the second half. But the Ducks never faltered, as Rowe and junior Katelyn Loper hit clutch shots and Oregon's strong free throw shooting this season sealed the deal in the final minutes.
The game against the Tigers last Sunday featured an amazing 34-point swing, as the Ducks fell behind by 11 early in the second half before leading by as many as 23.
"Something clicked for us," said sophomore Jillian Alleyne, whose tenacity on the defensive end and touch on offense set the tone for the comeback. "We had to wake up. … I think that clicked for everyone. It was like a simultaneous thing. And then we just got after it."
Alleyne's presence down low was complemented by the outside shooting of Loper, who sat out last season as a transfer and so futilely endured the four-win season on the bench. Loper also contributed to better perimeter defense, with the Ducks switching to a zone in the second half against the Tigers. Oregon did the same at Seattle U.
"We just took it into our own hands, that we need to get out on shooters and have some pride in ourselves," Loper said. "Last year we wouldn't really crack down on people from long range. We were just more more focused on getting out on defense."
And, as always, the Ducks ran, prompting their opponent to do the same. As can be the case, that led to some early offense by the opposition, with Princeton shooting 54.1 percent in the first half, for a 55-46 halftime lead.
But if the Ducks are running enough, the other team won't be able to keep up down the stretch. That was exactly the case Sunday, as the Tigers shot 34.3 percent in the second half. Oregon, meanwhile, improved from 42.1 percent in the first half to 48.8 in the second.
"Our goal is to tire you," Westhead said. "And also we would like to win. But we want to tire you. … The way this team's going to win is if they get in the habit of tiring the opposition."
Oregon's depth and versatility are allowing that to happen in ways it didn't last season. As the Ducks' starts in 2010 and 2011 showed, that's no guarantee they'll keep it up the rest of the way. But they've also come a long way from the doldrums of a season ago.