The Washington women’s basketball team was already hard pressed to overcome the absence of Amber Melgoza, one of the most prolific scorer’s in school history, and defensive ace Mai-Loni Henson, who graduated this summer.
Seemingly, senior Missy Peterson, a deadly three-point shooter who had shown flashes of star potential, was poised to shoulder greater responsibilities on both ends of the floor while stepping into the spotlight.
However, Peterson tore her ACL last week and will miss the 2020-21 season, which is a severe blow for the relatively young Huskies that return just one starter from a team that finished 13-17 and tied for ninth in the Pac-12 at 5-13 last season.
“It’s very unfortunate because she was really ready for her senior year and had prepared to have a great one,” coach Jody Wynn said Wednesday. “She’ll miss this season, but then return for us in (2021-22).”
Peterson had a breakout year as sophomore, which included a 23-point outing in the Pac-12 Tournament opener followed by a 19-point performance and a game-winning three-pointer with 2.3 seconds in the quarterfinals.
The 5-foot-11 guard from Edmonds-Woodway High regressed a bit last season while averaging 7.0 points — 2.4 fewer than the previous season — and shot season lows from the field (37.2%) and three-pointers (35.2%).
Losing Melgoza and Henson — a pair of three-year starters — and Peterson means Washington will have to replace 53.3% of its scoring on an offense that ranked 11th in the Pac-12, averaging just 66.3 points per game.
“Amber Melgoza and Mai-Loni Henson were two cornerstones with everything that we did as a program on and off the court, offensively and defensively for the last three years,” Wynn said. “Gone are two kids that were involved in almost every situation that we did on the court. Whether it was Mai-loni playing all over the court from point guard to post player and leading us defensively … to Amber Melgoza, a straight-up bucket-getter.
“So we’re different. There’s an opportunity for a lot .. of our women to step up and have a little bit more of a role, whether its through their voice and leadership abilities or on the court offensively and defensively.”
Junior center Darcy Rees is the lone returning starter. She averaged 6.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 18.4 minutes while starting 22 of 25 games before suffering a foot injury last February.
However, junior forward Haley Van Dyke may be Washington’s most important player this season.
Despite coming off the bench in 29 of 30 games, the 6-1 forward from Walnut Creek, Calif. led the Huskies in rebounding (5.1 per game), steals (2.1) and was second in scoring (8.2) while shooting 43.2% from the field last season.
“(She’s) certainly emerged as probably the leader in regards to playing both sides of the ball for us,” Wynn said. “We’re definitely excited for her junior year.”
Wynn identified Khayla Rooks as one of the team’s leaders, which will be a new role for the senior forward who has struggled to find consistent minutes along with senior guard Alexis Griggsby.
The other returners include junior guard T.T. Watkins, sophomore center Quay Miller and redshirt freshman guard Nia Lowery, who sat out last season.
During the offseason, Washington lost junior point guard Rita Pleskevich, who transferred to Florida Atlantic University, and freshman center Ali Bamberger left for Saint Mary’s.
Freshman Tameiya Sadler, a four-star recruit from Vallejo, Calif. who ranked among the top 100 prospects nationally, is expected to take over the point guard duties and will be UW’s third floor general in three seasons.
“She’s going to be really special,” Wynn said. “She can go downhill. She can defend 94 feet. She’s shooting the ball really well and she wants to be great.
“She’s still a freshman and so freshmen are going to have some good days and some bad days, but that’s OK because she wants it. She cherishes the opportunity to have the ball in her hands and create for other kids. She’s learning to play when the ball is not in her hands. … She’s going to make her teammates better with her drive-and-kick abilities.”
Freshman guards Jayda Noble and Alexis Whitfield and junior guard Grace Beasley are UW’s other newcomers.
This is the first Huskies roster comprised entirely of players recruited by Wynn. She took over a program in 2017 that made three straight trips to the NCAA tournament, including a Final Four appearance in 2016.
Washington has improved its wins from 7 to 11 to 13 each season under Wynn, but her record is 31-61, including 8-45 in the Pac-12. And her .337 winning percentage is the lowest in program history.
If the trend continues, then UW should finish better than last season’s record and potentially push for a postseason berth, which would be a significant accomplishment for Wynn.
However, the uncertainties with an inexperienced roster coupled with the unforeseen challenges of playing college basketball during a pandemic make it difficult to predict a rosy outcome for Washington.
“I’m really proud of the direction that our program is headed,” said Wynn, who is in the fourth year of a six-year $2.6 million deal. “I believe that the success as far as wins and losses will continue to grow. But I don’t have a crystal ball. All I can tell you is we’re going to compete. We’re going to play hard. We’re going to play harder that anybody that we face. We’ve got a great group of girls that are extremely unselfish.
“I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing where this season takes us and we hope to have a full season, but I can’t predict. I don’t know. I will say playing in the Pac-12 and the No. 1 women’s basketball conference in America, it’s tough to climb up the ladder, but our young talent is special. … I’m looking forward to seeing where this all takes us.”