The metal, dark-blue doors behind Western Washington University's Sam Carver Gymnasium serve as a portal of sorts for Jenni White.
Just outside, White, the starting point guard for WWU's women's basketball team, speaks with an unassuming softness - her voice rarely abandoning its calm tone. But beyond the 8-foot doorway the junior from Spokane becomes a tenacious defender, a lethal perimeter shooter, the orchestrator of the Vikings' offense and a major key to the teams overall success.
"It all starts with her," said junior guard Katie Colard.
As she goes, so, too, does WWU.
After redshirting her freshman year and serving as the backup to Corinn Waltrip for the past two seasons, White has blossomed into one of the primary scoring threats for the Vikings this season. She's posting career highs in nearly ever statistical category, including points per game (9.9), minutes (31), assists (4.1) and steals (2.2). Her numbers don't just stand out on WWU's roster, either, as her 4.1 assists per game ranks fifth amongst all players in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, and her 45.5 percent shooting from 3-point range ranks third.
The Vikings haven't found the same success as in years past, though, and enter their matchup with No. 18-ranked Northwest Nazarene University Saturday, Jan. 11, sporting a 6-6 overall record. The game begins at 5:15 p.m. at Carver Gym.
It's been quite a journey for the 5-foot-5 guard considering basketball wasn't even her primary focus until her sophomore year in high school. Golf and soccer drew much of her attention at the time, but her talent in basketball became impossible to ignore.
Her coming-out party wasn't until her junior season in high school when the Knights' stud guard went down with an injury and White took her place in the lineup. It was during the annual East Valley-Rogers High School rivalry game, aptly titled "The Gauntlet," she said, and she poured on 15 points.
White's nature has always been to be a pass-first point guard. Every so often, though, her capacity to score surfaces in bursts, just as it did against Rogers in 2009. It happened again her senior season, only on a much grander stage against a much better team.
East Valley wasn't a powerhouse girls' basketball team her senior season, White admitted, so when the Knights made it to a winner-to-state game against Hanford, one of the best 3A teams in the state that year, their Cinderella run looked to be over. White's 25 points, including five in the final 38 minutes of regulation, helped lift the Knights to a 66-63 win in overtime and into the state tournament where they finished eighth despite having a below-.500 record.
"(I) was definitely fearless," White said. "I took every shot. Basically no fear. No lack of confidence."
It's been a form she's tried to recapture this season - one she hasn't needed to grasp since her senior season in high school.
The night of Saturday, Jan. 4, was a restless one for White.
WWU had just lost to Montana State University-Billings 82-69 in Billings, Mont., and White had watched the Yellowjackets' star guard, Bobbi Knudsen, score a career-high 37 points, much of which came with White guarding her.
"Knudsen just had the game of her life," White said. "I was so mad from that game. ... I couldn't sleep. That's all I thought about. It just nagged me."
The Vikings' next practice on Monday, Jan. 6, was as intense as Colard could recall all season.
"If you see her working her butt off, then you want to work your butt off for her, too," Colard said. "We all want to follow suit."
Outside of Knudsen's big game, opposing starting backcourts have shot a combined 83 for 207 from the floor against the Vikings this season, good for 40 percent. White and the Vikings' guards are also forcing opposing backcourts into 5.6 turnovers per game.
"She makes people on offense not want the ball in their hands because she plays such great defense," Colard said. "She's just so quick, and when she's pressuring the point guard, her intensity just spreads on our team."
White's tentativeness on offense is a work in progress, she said, knowing that with each game she gains more confidence running the offense and looking for her shot. That lack of certainty, and her soft-spoken nature, doesn't translate to her mindset defensively, though.
Not at all, actually.
"(I'm) not afraid to be physical," White said. "You want to be more physical. You want to get more intense - tight on them. It just makes things all-around more fun."
White forced a game-high three steals WWU's 71-64 win against Central Washington University Thursday, Jan. 9, including a late one in the final minutes of the game that helped seal the win.
GROWING ON OFFENSE
Before the season began, WWU coach Carmen Dolfo pulled White into her office for a brief conversation.
Specifically, it was about what Dolfo expected from White as a scorer, White remembered. The Vikings lost their three top scorers from last season in Britt Harris (14.3 points per game), Trishi Williams (10.3) and Waltrip (12.9). Combined, the three accounted for 53 percent of the teams' total offense, and White was being asked to shoulder some of the burden that was lost.
"This year I am creating still, but Coach is always on me to look for my shot or penetrate and drive all the way," White said. "I am definitely more focused to try to score more."
In the second game of the season against Humboldt State University, White erupted for 18 points while shooting 7 of 16 from the floor. She added five assists and three steals in the overtime loss, but the transition from a passive manager of the offense to a shooter looking for her shot was well underway.
It's a mentality thing, she said, adding that in years past she would be thinking too often, rarely being so free and clear with the ball that she could look for her shot while still getting others involved.
"It's easier when you're encouraged to balance it so you're not scared to shoot (and) you're not scared to pass," she said. "It's just the flow and you know what to do."
Colard, who has benefited this year not only from extended minutes but from White's ability to penetrate and draw defenders, shed light on the fact that White is a true talent on the offensive end.
"I think she is capable of scoring when she wants to," Colard said. "Teams are going to worry about her because she is so fast and can beat anyone on the drive."
WWU is counting on that exact reality.
Reach Alex Bigelow at email@example.com or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.
By the numbers: NNU at WWU
18: That's the number of offensive rebounds the Vikings allowed Central Washington University in Thursday's 71-64 win. The Wildcats out-rebounded WWU 39-31, and Northwest Nazarene University has the best rebounding margin in the GNAC, out-rebounding its opponents on average by 8.5 per game.
9: The number of games this season junior guard Katie Colard has scored at least 14 points. Over her past five games, she's averaging 18 points per game while shooting 50 percent (18 of 36) from 3-point range.
16.9: The points-per-game average of NNU's Megan Hingston. Hingston's high games of the year are 27 and 30, respectively, and she's scored 18 or more points on seven different occasions this season.