Feb. 21, 2003
By Jack Ferdon
The Santa Clara
When Michelle Bento took over as women's basketball coach last spring, she inherited a team with a vacuum in its backcourt. Guards Caroline Gruening and Becki Ashbaugh had graduated and taken their combined 23 points per game with them.
So while it was not exactly as if Bento was handed the keys to a car without a steering wheel, it was not immediately apparent how to pop the clutch either.
"After losing Gruening and Ashbaugh, that was the question coming into the season - how could we fill the guard positions?" said Bento.
Relief has come in the form of two sophomores, Kayla Huss and Quinn Thomas who, despite their relative inexperience, have produced just as effectively as Ashbaugh and Gruening did last season and are putting up some numbers that compare favorably.
Huss' and Thomas' 11.3 and 11.1 points per game, respectively, are slightly less than Gruening's 11.7 and Ashbaugh's 11.4 from a year ago. Huss leads the league in three-point percentage at 45 percent - the same figure Gruening earned last year - while Thomas leads the conference in three-pointers with 57.
Though Huss has not equaled Ashbaugh's prodigious ball handling and passing stats of a year ago - Ashbaugh averaged over seven dimes and had a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio - her 5.3 assists per contest this season are good enough to rank second in the West Coast Conference.
And with Huss and Thomas in the backcourt, Santa Clara, at 16-7 overall and 7-3 in league, appears headed to similar win-loss marks garnered by last year's squad, which finished 21-10 (9-5) and made it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Huss and Thomas have also been credited by their coach with replacing some of the on-court guidance the squad lost with the departure of Gruening and Ashbaugh.
"They have both done a great job of stepping in and assuming roles of leadership on the team," said Bento.
The coach is equally pleased with their boldness from beyond the three-point line, even though threes represent more than half of each of their total field goal attempts and their combined 233 three attempts account for nearly one out of every six shots the team has taken from the floor this season.
"They are both tremendous shooters and though I don't want them to only be shooting threes, they definitely have the green light to do so," said Bento.
Said Thomas, "If I'm open, I'm going to shoot it, and [Bento] tells me to shoot it."
Perhaps Thomas' most clutch three-pointer of the year came last Saturday at Pepperdine. With 27 seconds left and the Broncos trailing 64-61, Bento, needing a three, called Thomas' number during a timeout.
"We were supposed to run a play to get me open, but the [opposing team] stopped it," said Thomas. "I was just trying to get open."
Thomas got the requisite space and her three from the corner tied the game. But Pepperdine came down the court and hit a last second shot for the win.
Beating the Waves has been an issue for the Broncos of late. Last year they lost to Pepperdine once during the regular season and again in the WCC championship game. The Broncos' record was good enough to earn them an invitation to the NCAA Tournament anyway. Santa Clara is not assured of that happening this year.
"We have a good shot [at getting an invitation]," said Thomas. "With our record in conference and preseason, we think we've earned a selection."
But with the RPI listing Santa Clara at 93rd in the nation, in all likelihood the Broncos' only chance to make the 64-team NCAA field will be to beat Pepperdine in the WCC tournament and grab the conference's automatic bid.
But Santa Clara is not looking that far ahead. With four regular season conference games remaining - beginning with USF on Friday night - the Broncos still have a shot of nabbing the first seed in the conference tourney from the Waves (18-6, 10-1).
"Although it was a heartbreaking loss [to Pepperdine], you have to rebound and now our focus is USF," said Bento.