Yes, these Huskies were young, and yes, they lacked depth, and yes, they seemed too small to compete in a tough Pacific-12 Conference, especially after high school All-American Katie Collier went down with a season-ending knee injury last summer. Yet McGuff and his players still believed there was something unique and special about this group.
And since calling off the season wasn't an option, the Huskies adapted. They learned to win despite being undersized, despite a lack of depth that has led to three players -- Kristi Kingma, Jazmine Davis and Mercedes Wetmore -- to be ranked among the top four in the conference for minutes played.
"If I had one person ask me, I had 100 people ask me, 'What are going to do with no post players?'" McGuff said. "I was like, 'We're not going to cancel the season, we're actually going to give it a shot.'"
Good thing they did give it a shot. Heading into this week's games in Utah and Colorado, the Huskies are in third place in the Pac-12 and have a 19-6 overall record, putting them close to their first 20-win regular season since 2003.
Success has come to this team for a lot of reasons, from McGuff's ability to tinker with his team's style to fit its lack of size; to the breakout season of redshirt freshman forward Talia Walton; to the improved play of Kristi Kingma, who struggled early in the year after sitting out last season with a torn ACL; to the continued growth of Jazmine Davis, last year's Pac-12 freshman of the year; to the ability of sophomore forward Aminah Williams to transform herself from a wing player to a post presence capable of averaging 11 rebounds per game while still leading the team in steals.
McGuff acknowledges that outsiders may not have seen this type of season coming for the Huskies, especially after Collier's injury. However, he knew there was still talent on his team's roster, even if it was mostly inexperienced. And having seen Walton in practice last year as she redshirted, McGuff knew he had a capable post player who could help lessen the blow of losing his top recruit.
"The thing I knew was, one, I liked a lot of pieces we had," McGuff said. "And though Talia didn't play last year, I got a chance to see her in practice, so I had a little more knowledge than most people, and I thought she could be a terrific player. And I was also confident that we could craft a style of play that would specifically fit this team and give us a chance to be successful."
Still, even if McGuff believed, his young team needed to experience some early success if the season was going to exceed expectations. Washington pulled out close victories in its first two games, getting two-point wins over St. Mary's and Seattle University, which McGuff points to as crucial results for his team's growth. Another big early-season moment was the team's comeback from a 19-point deficit in a win over San Diego State.
"That for me was a moment where I thought, we're young, but we're really talented," Kingma said. "Coach McGuff and (assistant coach Mike) Neighbors all year have said, 'Don't let outside people saying you're too young, you're too short, you don't have enough bodies, don't let that influence you. Stick with us, trust us.' And after that game, we all kind of rallied around each other, and the rest is history, I guess."
Well, it's not history yet. The Huskies still have plenty to play for, including a possible NCAA berth, but finishing the season strong will be no easy task. Washington, which has won nine of its past 10, plays at Utah on Friday, then at 21st-ranked Colorado Sunday. The Huskies get to finish the regular season at home, but against Pac-12 powers Stanford and Cal, who are ranked fourth and sixth, respectively.
"I kind of circled these games going into the season as benchmarks," Kingma said of the team's finishing stretch. "Any time you play teams that are nationally ranked and really well known, you always circle those games and want to see how you match up with them."
Three straight games against ranked teams is certainly a tough way to finish a season, but for a team that has been exceeding expectations all year long, what's one more challenge, right?
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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