Officially, the Chiles Center is the home court of the University of Portland.
With two players from Clark County on the roster, however, the University of San Diego women’s basketball team feels right at home there.
“I’m so excited to come home,” said Toreros sophomore guard Aubrey Ward-El, a Skyview High School graduate. “I love playing there. Just the feel of being in the Pacific Northwest again is so amazing. I love being able play in front of my family and friends, and getting to catch up with everyone after the game is always really, really good.”
It creates a much different road atmosphere for the Toreros than the hostile environments of Gonzaga and Brigham Young in particular.
“It’s really exciting,” said USD junior point guard Cori Woodward, a Prairie High School graduate. “We always end up having way more (road) fans than we ever do at Portland. They probably hate playing us. It’s always really fun when you have people in the stands who are there to cheer for you. When we go to Portland, we have people who are there for us.”
Ward-El said there were as many Toreros fans as Pilots fans at last season’s game in Portland.
With two freshmen from the Seattle area now on the roster, support for the Toreros can only increase.
Woodward on point
After playing a bit as a freshman then quite a bit as a sophomore, Woodward has seized the point for the Toreros and now plays nearly all the time.
The 5-foot-6 Woodward averages a team-leading 35.3 of a possible 40 minutes a game, more than double her career average after two seasons. She started 23 games for last year’s 25-7 WNIT squad and every game this season for the Toreros (21-6, 11-5 West Coast Conference).
That is just how she likes it.
“I enjoy that,” she said. “Personally, I feel like I want to run the floor — so I don’t want to come off the floor because I feel like I earned that spot. I feel like I know what coach wants, and I know how to communicate that to the rest of the team. I kind of take what’s given to me, so some games it’s less and some games it’s more. I just roll with it.”
Woodward, who led last year’s team with 83 assists, leads by far with 116 this season. Her averages of 6.9 points and 2.8 rebounds a game are the highest of her collegiate career, as is her .380 field goal percentage. Her assists-to-turnovers ratio is up from 1.1 (83:75) last season to 1.8 (116:66), a measure of efficiency she made a goal of improving as a junior.
With post players capable of defending against opposing guards, the Toreros frequently switch their assignments on defense, Woodward said. That increases her opportunity for defensive rebounds because she ends up in the paint boxing out taller players.
She gets few offensive rebounds because she has “safety” responsibility to not let releasing opponents get behind her.
Although not one of the team’s captains, Woodward said she has embraced the leadership role of her position.
“I really feel that it’s kind of the point guard’s job to run that leadership role on the floor and get people to where they need to be and get the play set up. That’s how I see it. I’m trying to be a leader on the floor for everybody.”
Ward-El has noticed.
“Oh, gosh. She’s doing amazing,” she said of Woodward. “She played a ton last year, obviously, and she has that confidence. Even from last year, I’ve seen a humongous confidence boost. She’s taking over and she’s not afraid of any opponent. She’s tiny, but she will bang with the rest of them. She does a great job distributing the ball and handling the pressure that teams put on us because we are a transition team. She is amazing. She’s dictating almost every game how it goes.”
Ward-El provides spark
Ward-El’s role has increased dramatically from her freshman season, starting with her increase in minutes played from 6.1 last year to 16.7 this season.
She is averaging 6.0 points and 1.7 rebounds (up from 2.0 and 0.9, respectively), more than doubling her shooting percentages from the field overall and from 3-point range (now .432 and .227) while shooting a team-leading 94.1 percent (32 of 34) from the free throw line.
Not that she can tell you the numbers.
“I feel a lot better about what I’m contributing to the team this year,” she said. “You’re required to grow up really fast from your freshman year to your sophomore year. You’re expected to be a leader in your own way. I don’t know exactly my stats, but I know that I’m contributing a lot more.”
Ward-El played in 28 of 32 games as a freshman and all 27 this season, but has not yet started one.
She relishes that role.
“I just try to take that mentality that I want to be that spark that comes in and gives a starter a couple minutes of rest so they can go back in and be able to do their best,” she said. “I really enjoy the role that I’m taking right now.”
Her struggle, she said, is that the boost of energy she provides when she enters a game for the first time often starts with her being “a bit jittery and nervous” because she is so excited to contribute that she can be prone to turnovers.
Ward-El usually plays at a wing as an attacking guard looking to penetrate the defense, but typically runs the second team from the point at practices and can play that spot during one of Woodward’s infrequent rests.
“When we’re in together, she runs the two, which has been awesome for us this year,” Woodward said. “… She’s been doing awesome this year. It’s really good having her run for me. She gets out, and I get the ball to her.”
When it comes to scoring, Ward-El has developed an affinity for the catch and rip — receiving a pass then taking a hard dribble to the wing for a pull-up jumper from the elbow.
She looks to rebound despite being a 5-9 guard, relying on her strength that made her a high school state placer in the shot put and javelin.
The Toreros have lost four of their last five games after a 20-2 start, including one each to the three teams ahead of them in the WCC standings in BYU, Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s.
Games Thursday at Gonzaga and Saturday at Portland close out the regular season, with the conference tournament March 3-8 in Las Vegas. USD has actually been better on the road (10-2) than at home (11-4) this season.
The goal, of course, is to get back on track and make a run at the WCC title and beyond.
Ward-El said the Toreros need to “get back to that confidence and that kind of swagger” that they had earlier in the season, knowing they can beat anybody. Their last game was a tough 68-60 loss at regular season conference champion BYU — the Cougars’ only WCC loss this season was at USD — which Woodward said can be a spark of momentum despite the loss.
“We’ll just go with what we’re given and try our hardest to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Woodward said. “I believe that we can do it this year.”
Part of what the schedule is giving this week is that 2 p.m. Saturday game at the Chiles Center, USD’s home away from home.
“Tell everybody to come to our game,” Woodward said with a laugh.