SEATTLE — A year ago, the University of Washington was one of the big surprises in women’s college basketball. Despite finishing fifth in the Pac-12 Conference standings, the Huskies advanced to the league tournament’s title game and then won four straight NCAA Tournament games to reach the Final Four.
This season, Washington is surprising no one.
Led by senior stars Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor — the duo leads NCAA Division I players in scoring (Plum at 30.7 per game) and rebounding (Osahor at 14.5) — the 20-2 Huskies are ranked seventh nationally heading into Sunday’s 5 p.m. showdown game against Stanford at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“It’s really unlimited to me where this team could go,” said UW coach Mike Neighbors.
In a conference long dominated by Stanford under legendary coach Tara VanDerveer, the Huskies are seeking their first regular-season league championship since the 2000-01 season (three-way tie) and their first outright title since 1987-88. Washington (8-1 in the Pac-12) is tied with Stanford (8-1, 18-3 overall, ranked 10th nationally) and Oregon State (8-1, 19-2, 11th) atop the standings.
It certainly helps that Washington has two players as gifted as Plum and Osahor. Neighbors calls Plum, a left-handed shooting guard, the best player he has ever coached and she is already the top scorer in conference history with 3,093 points. Osahor, meanwhile, had a 30-rebound effort against Washington State last weekend.
“If there was such a thing as a fantasy league for women’s college basketball, I’d like to have them both on my team,” Neighbors said with a grin. He added, “I can’t think of any (one-team tandem) off the top of my head that’s come close to some of their production.”
“They’re just amazing,” agreed UW senior forward Katie Collier.
But if the Huskies are to continue soaring, they need contributions from other players as well, and at both the offensive and defensive ends. Also, Neighbors said, Washington is “going to have to deal with some adversity at some point in time,” though there has been little of that to date. The Huskies lost on the road to Notre Dame and Oregon State, both ranked teams, but the 20 wins have all been by margins of 10 or more points.
Asked to compare last season’s team with his current squad, Neighbors said the 2015-16 Huskies “came together late. This year it’s happened a little earlier. I hope that doesn’t mean that we’re peaking earlier than we did last year. I hope it just means we’re further along in the process. But I think this group came together very quickly.
“As coaches,” he added, “you always end up turning the team over to the players at some point, if you’re having a good year. That happened late in the year (last season), but it’s happened (this season) already. This has been this group of kids’ leaders’ team for a long time now.”
After facing Stanford today, the Huskies will have eight remaining Pac-12 games before the March 2-5 conference tournament, scheduled for Seattle’s KeyArena. After that comes the NCAA Tournament, which at this point seems like a sure thing for Washington.
Looking ahead, Osahor said, “I’m very confident. You see how we’re doing so well. And we’re better than last year for sure. I’m confident that we can do whatever we want to do if we just play our game. And it should be fun.”