A common refrain in sports is the star athlete who says they would sacrifice their individual achievements if it meant greater team success.
Typically, such a response is greeted with a sarcastic eye roll from disbelieving fans, media and even teammates.
And yet when Amber Melgoza says “we’re better when I’m not scoring so much,” it feels genuine, heartfelt and quite possibly a very necessary step forward for a Washington women’s basketball team that’s off to a surprisingly hot start.
Heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. contest at California (8-3), the Huskies (9-3, 1-0 Pac-12) are riding a wave of momentum following a 65-56 win at Washington State.
Melgoza remains the No. 1 offensive option, but six Huskies have led Washington in scoring, which would have been inconceivable a year ago when Washington was overly reliant on its 5-foot-10 shooting guard.
“I don’t mind scoring less because I want to win,” said Melgoza, who averages 13.5 points, nearly five points fewer than last season. “I want to go to the (NCAA) tournament. I want to be top five in the Pac-12.
“I only knew how to score, but that wasn’t enough and I had to look at myself in the mirror and say if we’re going to win, then I’ve got to do something different. I can’t shoot it every time. … I learned that you’ve got to trust your teammates and believe they’re going to do the right thing and make the right plays.”
As a sophomore, Melgoza had a breakout 2017-18 season while averaging 19.0 points and 4.2 rebounds for a depleted UW team that returned just one starter under new coach Jody Wynn. Melgoza’s heroics earned her a spot on the All-Pac-12 team, but Washington finished 7-23 overall and 1-17 in the Pac-12.
The next season was more of the same. Melgoza averaged 18.1 points and collected all-conference honorable-mention honors. However, the Huskies were 11-21 overall and 2-15 in conference.
It’s almost counter-intuitive, but the Huskies needed less from their star to truly embrace Wynn’s defensive philosophy that emphasizes an all-around offensive attack. Or as Wynn likes to put it: “We need more players to step up and play at Amber’s level.”
The Huskies, who rank ninth in the Pac-12 while averaging 70.9 points, won’t morph into an offensive juggernaut anytime soon. But unlike previous years, they’ve been able to find alternative scoring options when Melgoza struggles. Sophomore Haley Van Dyke is UW’s second-leading scorer with 10.0 points per game off the bench. And junior guard Missy Peterson is a three-point threat who averages 9.5 points and is capable of big scoring performances such as a 23-point outing in last year’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals.
Low-post scoring remains a concern, but sophomore center Darcy Rees and freshman reserves Ali Bamberger and JaQuaya Miller have shown potential.
“There’s very little drop-off, if any, off the bench,” said Wynn, who relies on a deep rotation in which 11 players average at least 10 minutes. “T.T. (Watkins) and Haley are two of our most efficient scorers, and they’re doing a great job on the boards and defensively.
“It’s nice to be able to continue to play with maximum effort by rotating some kids in the game and not having some drop-off.”
But for all of this to work, Melgoza had to be content with a diminished offensive role in which she averages just 11.8 shots, five fewer than last season.
“Scoring has always been my thing, but no one knows I can be an assist player and no one knows I can rebound,” said Melgoza, who is second among UW players with 37 assists and 64 rebounds. “No one knows I can get steals and take charges.
“A lot of people don’t see that stuff. They say she’s only a scorer. That was something I worked on this summer was to be an all-around player.”
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Washington’s best player is struggling offensively and shooting a career-low 28.6 percent on three-pointers.
“But she’s doing so much more,” Wynn said. “Amber is playing defense. She’s playing a complete basketball game right now. She’s scoring the ball when the offense is letting her. She’s making good decisions.
“Is she shooting the percentage that she wants to? No, but she’s in the gym tirelessly, and it’s going to come. If she starts worrying and thinking about that and the focus becomes on that, then the performance might not happen. But if she continues to trust that her hard work is going to pay off and that her teammates’ hard work is going to pay off, then we’re a much better team.”
— Washington is 5-0 in away games this season and 8-1 in its past nine road contests, which includes a surprising 2-1 performance in last year’s Pac-12 tournament.