by Rob Moseley
Top to bottom, player to player, the Oregon women's basketball team is making tangible progress over the course of this season.
The Ducks' fourth win in five games, 93-71 over Utah at Matthew Knight Arena on Saturday, illustrated that in the most black and white sense. But it was the development individual players showed — in Chrishae Rowe's leadership, Jillian Alleyne's overcoming adversity, Drea Toler's recent emergence — that is making Oregon's turnaround all the more impressive.
Once mired in a dismal 0-6 start to conference play, the Ducks improved to 4-7 on Saturday, and 13-9 overall. Oregon fought through tough winter weather that resulted in a subdued atmosphere for the game, and a rugged Utah defense that tried to dominate the pace of play — to great success in the first half.
"I said to our players, 'This is going to be an energy game in the second half; what do you have?" UO coach Paul Westhead said.
Rowe kept the UO women alive while her teammates endured the slow start, and the freshman got Alleyne going with a halftime pep talk. Toler, another freshman, started at point guard in the second half as the Ducks rocketed out of the gate with a 27-12 run to take command of the game.
Rowe made 5-of-6 from three-point range during that spurt, on her way to 38 points for the afternoon. She deserved some credit for Alleyne's second-half double-double, too, after talking with Oregon's sophomore post following a two-point, four-rebound first half.
Alleyne was struggling against double- and triple-teams by the Utes, who fought back from an early deficit to forge a 36-36 halftime tie. After her pep talk from Rowe, Alleyne had 16 points and 13 rebounds in the second half.
"She's always talking," Alleyne joked afterward, ribbing her freshman teammate as Rowe sat next to her for a postgame interview. "But one thing about Shae, she has a really good basketball IQ. She knows the game. The things she sees, you've got to take it in."
Alleyne admitted being frustrated by the extra attention from Utah's defense, and said she knows going forward she can't let such tactics affect her mentality. Rowe apparently said as much at halftime Saturday.
"We need her on the boards and need her in the post to dominate the game," Rowe said. "She picked it up for us."
Rowe did too, even after scoring 16 of Oregon's 36 points in the first half. She finished with 38 on the afternoon, with 12-of-23 shooting and a career-high seven three-pointers on 13 attempts.
"She kept the fire lit until others could then say, 'OK, let's go,'" Westhead said. "That was her best asset today."
Toler was among those who got going as the game wore on. She didn't start the first half but was on the court coming out of halftime, the speedy little freshman ultimately playing a season-high 22 minutes and dishing out five assists, her best total in conference play this year.
After assisting on Rowe's three-pointer to open the second half, Toler added back-to-back baskets, on a day she attempted a career-high 11 shots. The Ducks also got 13 points from Ariel Thomas and 11 from Lexi Petersen.
"Sometimes you take chances and they don't work; sometimes you take a risk and they do," Westhead said. "Starting Drea in the second half kick-started our team."
Toler added a career-high five steals, after entering the day with eight in 20 games. The Ducks used their trapping press to hound Utah into 22 turnovers, while Oregon committed just nine.
Saturday's game was played a day later than originally scheduled due to a two-day snow storm in Eugene. With icy road conditions around town, attendance was free and season-ticket holders on hand were given refunds, with the crowd ultimately announced at 384.
The small crowd contributed to a subdued atmosphere that, combined with Utah's desire to slow the tempo, made for a slow start. Rowe scored Oregon's first points 4:15 into the game, and the Utes finally made their first field goal with 13:57 left in the first half.
Just getting the game in was no small feat. Arena staff including Ed Wellette, Che Robinson, Gabe Hein, Charles Dougherty, Ashley McCrea, Devon Shea, Patrick Neve and Aaron Jester worked over six hours to get snow and ice cleared from around the building so it could accommodate the crowd. A crew of local small-college officials was called upon to work the game.
"Six hours ago, we thought we were going to have maybe a scorekeeper," Westhead said afterward. "And then, they came. So thank all of you for that."
"We're really grateful for the fans that came out," Alleyne said. "That snow was no joke out there."