Westhead, Ducks believe in fresh start after tough season
Sophomore Amanda Johnson sat outside McArthur Court on Thursday in a gray Oregon sweatshirt and white, baggy basketball shorts. The sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, revealing a single word written on her right wrist in blue ballpoint pen, as a reminder.
“I’ve been writing it on my wrist since my junior year of high school,” Johnson said. “I’m getting it tattooed in a couple weeks.
“It’s a personal reminder to have faith in myself as a player, as person in my life and to have the understanding that you have to believe that you can do something before you can actually achieve it,” she continued. “But if you don’t believe, you are subconsciously holding yourself back.”
That philosophy was tested last year in one of the worst seasons in women’s basketball history at Oregon. The Ducks finished 9-21 overall and 5-13 in the Pacific-10 Conference. Although they weren’t even last in the conference (they were seventh), it still felt like last for some women.
“It was so frustrating,” Johnson said. “Every one was frustrated. Looking back, I think it shows our immaturity. At certain points we could have banded together as a team and we didn’t.”
It was obvious to fans and critics alike that the Ducks were a broken team. Head coach Bev Smith was given an ultimatum to either win or leave. The Ducks struggled to consistently score and their post game was almost non-existent. Add in numerous injuries, including several that kept team captain Taylor Lilley out for eight games, a torn ACL that ended Nia Jackson’s season and a broken foot that kept Rita Kollo out, and the Ducks were doomed early.
The Ducks limped to the finish line ending with a resounding 69-43 loss to the No. 10-seeded Washington Huskies in the Pac-10 Tournament. The athletic department fired Smith, the coaching staff vacated, and the program sat at the bottom looking up.
Then Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny did a curious thing and hired Paul Westhead to rejuvenate the team. A well-known coach in the WNBA and the NBA, Westhead coached the Los Angeles Lakers in the early ’80s and led them to the 1980 NBA Championship. After a one-season stint with the Chicago Bulls, he ended up in the college ranks at Loyola Marymount, where he perfected his run-and-gun style.
That experience preceded jobs with the Denver Nuggets, George Mason University, the Orlando Magic and the Seattle Super Sonics/Oklahoma City Thunder. He also coached the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA to the 2007 WNBA Championship, making him the only coach to ever win an NBA and a WNBA title.
Now Westhead is in Eugene and he’s looking forward to changing the program around.
“I am happy to be here,” he said. “This is a terrific university in a highly rated conference. I had a great experience coaching women with the Mercury and being able to coach young women again was one of the main reasons I decided to come to Oregon.”
He says the team has a clean slate now, that last season might as well have been two decades ago.
“To me that era is gone,” Westhead said. “We’re all dead even right now. They have an opportunity to do something different.”
“It’s more of a clean slate,” Johnson said. “It feels like I’m coming into my freshman year again. There’s not much to take from last year except the experience of playing at that level. I feel we’ve already left the last season go.”
Lilley says Westhead’s love of basketball is infectious.
“I love it,” she said. “He’s such a good guy. He’s easy to be around and likes to laugh. But he’s very serious about basketball. This season is a great chance to start new.”
That’s a good thing for Lilley, because she thought her junior year was a disappointment because she felt she let the team down.
“It was very frustrating for me personally,” she said. “It was horrible because I felt like I wasn’t giving my all to the team all, though I was trying my hardest. The injuries just held me back and I couldn’t get into any rhythm.”
Now it’s Lilley’s last chance to make an impact on the team, and she says that is what’s motivating her more than anything. She’ll do whatever it takes to avoid a repeat of last year.
“It’s hard to explain, but I want to step into that role as being a leader and taking the girls where we need to go,” she said. “I just want to do what I can – whatever that might be – so we are the best we can be.”
And with the complete revamping of the style of play, she’s excited to be let loose.
“(The run-and-gun) or fast-break style is so much fun,” Lilley said. “There’s a great satisfaction in it and it’s like you’re free. But there’s still a method to the madness. Every player likes to run the court.”
But Westhead says the only way it will work in Eugene is if the entire team buys into the concept.
“I’m not watering this down for them,” he said. “This is the exact same program I implemented in Phoenix with the Mercury. Same drills, same plays, same everything. It’s a team thing. You have to commit yourself to the way you play.”
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