San Francisco women's basketball's Shannon Powell (33) huddles with her freshmen teammates, from left to right - Kia Vaalavirta, Julia Nielacna and Marta Galic, during the Dons' game versus UT Arlington on Nov. 25, 2018, at War Memorial at the Sobrato Center. (Christina Leung/USF Athletics)

USF Women’s basketball is building on a youthful core

With 7:45 left in the third quarter of Thursday’s game against Pepperdine, University of San Francisco senior point guard Shannon Powell found herself all alone with her own rebound under the net.

After missing a lay-up, not only had her own team gotten back on defense, but the Waves — in third place in the West Coast Conference — cleared out as well. Powell hit her third straight uncontested lay-up. It wasn’t the first time Pepperdine had seemingly declined to defend the Dons’ only active senior. It also wasn’t the last — she ducked underneath for an unguarded baseline layup to tie the game at 36 on the very next possession.

Powell finished with a team-high 22 points points in a 72-66 loss, a game that showed just how far the freshman-heavy Dons have come, and how far they still have yet to go. Head coach Molly Goodenbour was given a multi-year extension this summer on the strength of her performance with her predecessor’s players, and the strength of her recruiting. Next season will be her first with a team that’s almost entirely her own.

“They’re getting better at everything,” Goodenbour said. “We know we’re going to be a good team. We’re just not quite ready yet … We make a lot of mistakes. We make a new mistake every day. We’re entertaining in the way that we screw things up sometimes.”

The Dons had a promising start, winning three of their first four games, the only blemish being a 34-point loss to No. 7 Stanford. They then lost four straight. After winning three of their next five games, they then lost the next eight straight.

“The only younger team may have been the Santa Rosa JC team I coached, where you only have freshmen and sophomores,” Goodenbour said. “This is absolutely the youngest team that I’ve ever coached, and we did it, it was intentional.”

Goodenbour went out this past year with the intention to get a huge class, and to fill that class with players who had high ceilings and experienced high-level competition, even if they weren’t very polished. Abby Rathbun, for instance, is a scrapper who plays like a coiled spring, but at times will forget who she’s supposed to guard. Marta Galic — twin sister to fellow freshman Marija — finds new ways to fall every day in practice. Bumps were to be expected, but the mounting losses tried patience.

“You’re always disappointed when you lose, and we had a big losing streak, but I don’t think anybody ever gave up,” said freshman Lucija Kostic, who, like the Galic twins, played in the Croatian national team system. “We always knew that we could do better. It was just the little details, obviously experience.”

One of those details: Turnovers, caused by youthful mistakes and inattentiveness. Over the first 20 games, San Francisco averaged 18.3 per game.

“You tell yourself you’re going to be patient, and it’s going to be about learning, and they’re going to develop and have opportunities to play, then when you kind of get in the middle of that, we’re all competitive. We want to win,” Goodenbour said. “It’s tough to lose this many games with this group, but I think we’ve kind of reconciled ourselves to the point where we know these kids are good, we know they’re going to be a good team at some point. We’re just not quite ready yet.”

One hurdle: Of the eight freshmen Goodenbour brought in, all but one came from outside of the United States. Six different countries were represented in that group, which made early practices a bit trying, especially for the woman directing traffic, Powell. In the middle of games, she’d have to admonish her younger teammates to speak English, instead of their native tongue.

It’s also easy to look at an average point differential of -4.7 (second-worst in the league) and an average margin of defeat of 11.4 points in WCC play and say the team is far from a contender. But, less than a month ago, the Dons lost by 19 to that same Pepperdine team.

“It’s been a long season, I’ll give you that, but I love working with them, and I love playing with them,” said Powell, who leads the team with 16.4 points per game. “They play so incredibly hard, especially these two. It’s been a learning process for them, and we try to give them as many reps as we can, and get them that experience.”

The Dons (6-16, 2-9 in WCC) started two of their eight true freshmen against Pepperdine two nights after beating Santa Clara on the road, arguably their best win of the season.

San Francisco had held leads in 12 of their 15 losses before that game, and in seven of those games, they’d led at halftime. In Santa Clara, the Broncos pulled to within one point four times in the third quarter, but the Dons never surrendered the lead.

The win was a major step forward a program which has seen six of its true freshmen play meaningful, extended minutes this season, but has paid for that fact with mental lapses. Even against the Waves, the ball seemed to stick with the freshmen, and the Dons had only had four assists on 14 first-half field goals, and 12 on 29 by the end of the game.

With true freshmen Kostic and Rathbun — still learning how to play guard after a lifetime playing the post — in the starting lineup, San Francisco coughed up four turnovers in the first 3:23, and were able to get off only two shots, while Pepperdine went 3-for-6 to start the game on an 8-2 run.

Powell’s court vision was able to paper over that ugly start, as well as a stretch where the Dons missed six straight shots and went 3:21 without scoring. Those kinds of streaks are expected with a young team.

“With them being such a young group, getting them into that groove, the way Molly coaches, the way she wants them to play, that’s where we were that first half, but we overcame it,” Powell said. “We got it.”

They finished with only 11 turnovers, and a three by Julia Nielacna at the buzzer flashed a grit and competitiveness that the Dons had not shown in the first half of WCC play.

“We’ve definitely improved, every single one of us, even me,” said Powell, who was able to play a complementary role last season on a team led by three seniors. “We actually had this conversation, and I think we all decided that we needed that first go-around to see how it was, and now, they’re playing a lot harder, and they’re playing together, which is a great thing.”

So far this season, the Dons have been able to rely on Powell’s steadying influence, but four of the top five minutes-getters have been true freshmen, freshmen who will comprise the starting lineup next season. Nia Alexander, a redshirt sophomore who missed all of last season with injury, will also return, but has only played in 17 games, with seven starts this season due to a nagging knee injury.

San Francisco will lose only one major contributor in Powell, and will only have one senior on next year’s roster: Moa Lundqvist, who hit a three with eight minutes to go in regulation to put the Dons on top 53-52 and erase a seven-point third-quarter Waves lead.

“Moa’s a great leader, she doesn’t do a ton for us making baskets, but she does a hundred other things on the floor,” Goodenbour said. “She plays very hard, she cuts hard, she makes the offense move because of her movement. She understands how to play. She can defend.”

The same goes for Rathbun, who, though raw, is a dynamo. Her athleticism and burst are for the most part wild, at this point, but once harnessed, she could be something akin to what the men’s team has in Charles Minlend Jr. — an athletic driver who can wreak havoc on the baseline.

“Abby is twitchy. There’s always something moving on Abby,” Goodenbour said. “On a daily basis, she vibrates her way through life. She’s got a huge heart, too. She doesn’t have a great shot, doesn’t have a great basketball sense, but she plays really, really hard. She’s extraordinarily tough, and she’s competitive.”

For playing one of the top teams in the league, the young Dons acquitted themselves as well as they could on Thursday, and have seven regular-season games left. At some level, it’s necessary to accept the fact that, right now, they don’t have the experience to compete with, for instance, the league’s leading scorer — Yasmin Robinson-Bacote, who had 28 points in Pepperdine’s win — and a team that had three starters playing their third or fourth year of college basketball. But, when the team heads to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could steal a first-round game.

After that, Goodenbour is looking to fill holes, likely with some more experienced players, either four-year transfers or junior college players. The Dons need to replace Powell, and they need more rebounding, but the foundation is there.

“All these freshmen should be playing 10-18 minutes a game, and they’re playing 25-35 minutes a game. That was intentional,” Goodenbour said. “We did that with our roster, knowing that we were going to bring in this young group.

“Next year, and they’ll have almost two years of playing experiences, based on what a real, normal freshman should have. Still, we need help. We have a deficit in our shooting. We have a big hole at our point guard position. We need some athleticism and rebounding. We need to add some of those pieces as we go along to help make these guys be closer to what they can be.”

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