By Kyle Koso
When the party is still rolling, you don’t want to be the one who starts tidying up and running the vacuum too soon.
Floating in the background of the amazing 2015-16 run of the Washington women’s basketball team was that thought of … when do we turn the page? You can understand the desire to revel, as the Huskies rumbled through all comers and into the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, coming up short to Syracuse but still posting a memorable 26-11 record and helping the nation fully appreciate the strength of West Coast hoops.
Weeks and weeks later the Pacific Northwest was still cheering UW players on their accomplishments, and if it took until summertime to start thinking about the next chapter, so be it. But eventually, a new season and a fresh set of challenges got the Huskies interested in sharpening their fangs for a fresh meal.
“Once everything was over, I went back and watched the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games, and those were so fun to watch,” said senior forward Chantel Osahor, who averaged better than 10 points and 11 rebounds per game last season and set a UW single-season record with 417 rebounds. “I don’t think I really was over it until our team retreat before this season, when I knew it was time to buckle down and think about this team, this year, and let that go. It’s time to move on. When I was in Seattle, every day, someone would come up to me and congratulate me and the team – it was fun to see the community support us and be happy for us.”
“I relied upon our team to be the gauge. We’ve got things to do, with the banners and the ring ceremonies,” said Washington head coach Mike Neighbors. “Once our freshmen hit campus and it became a new team; that’s when it sunk in. We had everybody here for the Australia trip (this past summer), and knew when we had said goodbye to three great seniors and welcomed in five new faces, that’s when it made sense.”
It helps to have a reason to be excited about the future, and the Huskies are not hurting in that department. With Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA also making deep NCAA runs, attention on the West is rising, and the player they will see first is UW senior guard Kelsey Plum. Already the all-time leading scorer in Huskies history (2,418 points), Plum led the nation in minutes played and will own a spot on every relevant preseason all-American list.
With the exit of Talia Walton (who hit eight 3-pointers in the loss to Syracuse and was selected in the WNBA Draft), Plum likely will be asked to chip in a bit more on offense, although she prefers her senior year be remembered for something other than volume shooting.
She plays on the attack, but there’s an attack plan.
“Throughout my years here, I’ve learned the hard way, been more like a pit bull. I’d keep coming and coming until I finally break free. Now, I come to it with more poise and intelligence,” Plum said. “You look at situations, being triple-teamed or box-and-one, and I have to look for my teammates then. As we start this year, especially, it’s crucial that I get my teammates involved and feel confident they’ll be able to do it. And when they need me, I’ll be there. It’s my job to bring it out of them. I’m excited, because it’s an opportunity for me to become a better leader and better playmaker … especially for the next level. I won’t be the focal point to start out with, so I like having new ways to grow my game.”
If Plum stays healthy and continues her trend as a potent, multi-faceted scorer, she’ll finish with more than 3,000 career points. There are 11 players currently on that list, and Plum has an outside chance to reach the No. 1 spot, held by Jackie Stiles of Southwest Missouri State (3,393 points). It’s a storyline the nation will get more accustomed to hearing once conference play has begun in earnest.
“She’s an integral part of what we do. I don’t see her attempts going down. All I’ve ever said – the fact she’s doing it against the competition she’s faced is what boggles my mind, and the consistency is mind-blowing,” Neighbors said. “You look at the top 10 scorers in history of game, elite players, and some who were very, very good but not in a Power 5 Conference. And she did it at a time before Washington was a chic place to go to school. You’ve got to wrap your head around the whole thing to appreciate the impact she’s had. I’ll pay attention to stuff like that for her; I’ll cover the historical side of things. We’ll pay attention as it comes close, and now we’re talking only about what it takes to win games.”
“When I look back, I didn’t expect this. I expected to come in, play and compete. I didn’t expect to put up certain numbers. I’m just a competitor,” Plum said. “I’ll get these questions about the (scoring) record, but at the end of the day, if we win 30-somegames and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, that’s what I’ll be most proud of. That’s what I will be remembered by. To lead a team to a national championship game is a lot more cool, in my eyes. I hope people will appreciate the overall body of work and how far the program has come, more than any scoring record.”
With Plum and Osahor in place, what will the Huskies put forward to round out the lineup? The answer begins with senior Katie Collier, who started all 37 games last year and is a spirit-lifter every day after staring down leukemia and a significant knee injury on the front end of her college career. Nebraska transfer Natalie Romeo is a 3-point weapon of the highest order, and will be a huge asset if the NCAA approves her eligibility waiver so she can suit up this season.
After that – it’s all about the kids. Four freshmen have been brought in to contribute immediately, and Neighbors will also look at some of his deeper roster players from a year ago – they may not have played much, but the hope is the Final Four run had the power to change all involved.
“I think if the team from last year lined up against this team I’ve seen in practice, this year’s team beats ‘em by double figures. The addition of the freshmen, the maturity of Chantel, Kelsey and Katie, three more great senior leaders – it’s very encouraging,” Neighbors said. “Obviously, we’ve got some unproven talent that hasn’t done it on the big stage, and there are changing roles with people who were here last year but didn’t play as many minutes. I’ll have angst about some of that until we line up against someone in a different uniform. We are explosive offensively and would put a stress on last year’s team if we would go head-head.”
“One thing is, our freshmen don’t play like freshmen. They’re good at listening, they ask questions, and they make it easy for us to help them,” Osahor added. “Our transfer is an absolute stud and is up to date with everything, and so all credit to her for that knowledge of the game. I’m pleased with where they are at. The great thing is, they are all about attacking, going downhill. They’re not afraid to take the big shot.”
Osahor’s unique in-and-out skill set, and Plum’s ability to drive the Huskies in multiple ways, will keep Washington winning and make the Pac-12 deeper and more relevant, with both UCLA and Stanford picked to win a ton of games and Arizona State and Oregon State expecting to thrive. And that serves the larger picture the Huskies really value.
“We talked about it, being the strongest league, and we went out and proved it,” Neighbors said. “RPI, and number of teams in Final Four, Elite 8, Sweet 16 – any gauge used to judge other great conferences, we certainly performed at that very high level. This year – it’s even deeper, even stronger. What we all know now is, this league prepares you for anything the NCAA Tournament can throw at you.”
“It’ll be essential to bring the new players into our group. We haven’t had a big roster or played a lot of people since I’ve been here,” Plum added. “As a leader, I take pride in everyone feeling like they belong, and they are comfortable. You help with love and compassion and support; anyone knows, when you feel comfortable and are loved, you’ll play better basketball.
“We haven’t played a game yet. Anything can happen, I want to stay hungry and stay in the gym. I’m grateful for the attention, because I think it helps the program. It helps the West Coast, because there’s a bias the West Coast isn’t as good as the East. In the tournament, we proved that wrong. It’s bigger than me – it’s about representing a brand of basketball that gets pushed aside.”