A salute to Husky basketball’s “engine,” the driven, selfless Mercedes Wetmore

image

This picture is from immediately after the Huskies upset No. 3 Stanford at Alaska Airlines Arena last month.

It perfectly captures not only that Sunday celebration but the spirit, drive and teamwork of one of the more remarkable players Washington women’s basketball has had in a while: Mercedes Wetmore (1).

The selfless, adaptable, senior point guard will extend her UW record when she plays in her 126th game as a Husky, in the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The day of that game will be determined following tonight’s Colorado-at-Texas-El Paso WNIT matchup; Washington will play the winner of that one.

Wednesday the driver teammates have called “our engine” passed Giuliana Mendiola for the Huskies’ record in games played. She scored 10 points and again provided many of the key plays that don’t jump out of the box score in Washington’s 62-55 win over San Diego.

That might have been Wetmore’s final home game at UW. The WNIT determines home games not based upon seeding but upon which team tournament officials think provides the better chance for a fuller arena — and UTEP had 4,703 at its last home WNIT game, a win over Saint Mary’s.

She’s absolutely been overshadowed by record-setting freshman scorer Kelsey Plum and all-Pac-12 dynamo Jazmine Davis in the Huskies’ prolific backcourt. But no way is Wetmore unappreciated — at least not by her teammates, coaches and anyone who has followed her career since she came out of Auburn Riverside High School in 2010 as an all-state point guard and Washington state champion.

That was three Huskies head coaches ago.

Tia Jackson recruited Wetmore and coached her through her freshman season. Kevin McGuff then came from Xavier in April 2011 and changed everything Wetmore and the Huskies knew, from grueling practices to how they ate. McGuff also made Wetmore his team’s trigger. That began a string of her starting 66 times in 67 games over two seasons.

Last spring McGuff jumped back to his home state to accept a lucrative offer to coach Ohio State. Mike Neighbors got a promotion off McGuff’s staff into his first head-coaching job at UW — and made some more changes to practices and schemes.

Meanwhile, McGuff and Neighbors signed Davis, Plum and Katie Collier. Davis was the Pac-12’s freshman of the year two seasons ago and also considers herself a point guard. Plum, another headstrong guard, and low post Collier are the first two McDonald’s High School All-Americans to play women’s basketball at Washington.

Yet through it all, Wetmore has dutifully adapted, led, supported and soldiered on. She has started 99 of the last 100 games for the Huskies; her only miss was when she was knocked out last season with a bad flu.

I mean, that must have been an awful one, to keep her out of a game.

When the Huskies have needed her to drive and score, Wetmore’s done that. When Davis and then Plum arrived, they needed her to defer and feed to thrive. Plum broke the school’s scoring record, Davis made UW’s one of the top two scoring backcourts in the country.

Someone had to ensure they got the ball. That was Wetmore — and Washington has won 44 games and counting over two seasons.

The starter with the highest 3-point shooting percentage this season for UW? That’s Wetmore, at 37.1 percent.

The only player on either team to play all 40 minutes Wednesday while Washington outlasted tiring San Diego in the WNIT? Yep, Wetmore.

This season she ranked second in the Pac-12 in minutes played. She played all 40 minutes in 14 of 18 conference games.

Wetmore ranked second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in assists.

As usual, she did far more than score Wednesday. She consistently fed Plum, Davis and Talia Walton for open looks. At 5 feet 8, she pulled down rebounds; she’s averaging 3.7 of those per game. Wetmore even blocked a shot, her fourth block this season, then converted a pass from Davis for a layup in the first half that gave the Huskies their largest lead, 25-16.

After San Diego tied the game for the sixth time, at 49 with 6 minutes left, Wetmore came up with a huge steal. UW stayed ahead from there, aided by Wetmore’s two free throws with 2:42 remaining. Those put the Huskies up 53-49. San Diego never got closer after that, and UW advanced to the quarterfinals while ensuring the Dawgs’ third consecutive 20-win season.

This is the first time UW has 20 in three straight years since winning 20 in seven consecutive seasons from 1984-85 to ‘90-91.

Wetmore has 138 assists to 65 turnovers in 33 games, better than the 2:1 ratio that coaches consider very good. Her 105 assists to 56 turnovers in the 2012-13 regular season led the Pac-12.

"She’s our engine," then-senior leader Kristi Kingma said last spring of Wetmore. "Mercedes is immensely important to us. She can score; she knows that. But for the good of the team she makes Jaz and myself and others look good.

"When Mercedes is playing well and passing well our whole offense changes."

The ever-pressing Wetmore said she has studied statistical trends among the top scorers in women’s college and professional basketball. She has found the percentage of points scored in one-on-one, isolation matchups is surprisingly low. Most of the points are scored by kick-out passes or other assists created off dribble penetration.

The research reinforced to Wetmore the importance of handling the ball into the lane as if to score, then passing to the Huskies’ shooters.

"I do pride myself on giving this team a lot of chances to score," she told me last season. "I can score if I need to, but it’s more about getting everyone else going."

But wait, there’s more.

Huskies softball coach Heather Tarr is so impressed with Wetmore’s leadership and winner’s mentality, she had her join her team midway through last season. Wetmore was mostly a pinch-runner, yet she instantly became a softball favorite and helped motivate her new teammates all the way into the Women’s College World Series.

This week the Pac-12 recognized how good Wetmore is off the floor, as well. The league gave her a second team all-academic honor.

Wetmore has a nifty 3.46 grade-point average. She will earn a communications degree upon graduation this spring. She wants to pursue a career in real estate — and as an entrepreneur.

With her drive, I’m guessing she’ll kill it in both of those fields, too.