By Kirby Arnold
SEATTLE — Kellie O’Neill has lost basketball games before, but this one lit a fire of frustration that wouldn’t go out.
How could the Washington Huskies have lost by 20 points on Sunday at Wisconsin? How could it have happened just two days after they came within a breath of losing at Montana State?
After all, this is the 19th-ranked women’s team in the country, the defending Pacific-10 Conference champion and much of the same group that would have reached the Final Four last season had Jackie Styles not sent them home one game too soon.
"I was in shock on the plane ride home," O’Neill said of the Huskies’ opening weekend of disbelief. "We were expecting to go out there and blow those teams out and show them what the Pac-10 is all about, come home and get down to business."
Instead, they kept the basketballs on the rack for a day and had a long, long talk.
"Three hours," O’Neill said.
Nobody wanted to experience what the Huskies went through last weekend, especially when they open their home schedule at 8 tonight against Northeastern in the first round of the Husky Classic at Hec Edmundson Pavilion
So they talked about it Tuesday instead of having practice.
Of all the in-your-face revelations that were exposed in that meeting — help-side defense must improve, everyone needs to contest the drive, overall there must be a blue-collar mentality to this team — one didn’t go without notice.
O’Neill decided to speak up.
"I’ve never been a vocal leader," said O’Neill, a junior from Meadowdale High School who is one of the veterans on a UW team that has just one senior. "But this year I want to win so bad that I can’t afford to be quiet anymore."
Assistant coach Mike Daugherty, the husband of head coach June Daugherty, had asked O’Neill earlier Tuesday what she thought went wrong over the weekend. She shared her views, and he asked that O’Neill talk to the team at the meeting.
Her message, generally, was for everyone to get it in gear and play the games like they do practice.
"We were so embarrassed," O’Neill said. "We had worked our butts off this summer, and to see that kind of result come game time was disappointing. We beat each other up in practice and then we don’t beat up our opponents."
Nobody seemed happier to see O’Neill break out of her shell than June Daugherty.
"Her leadership skills have come full circle. As a freshman and sophomore, there were times we couldn’t get her to talk on the court calling screens, and off the court she was very quiet," coach June Daugherty said. "Kellie understands that she has been fortunate to have had some great experiences with basketball and it’s important for her to share it and get everybody else involved."
O’Neill, a 6-1 forward who usually is the first player off the bench, brings the grit and experience of a veteran who the Huskies need even though every starter played a significant role in last season’s success.
"Kellie is our most experienced post player and she brings a toughness to the court and a wealth of understanding about the way you’ve got to play," Daugherty said. "Last year is done and it was a great experience. The most important thing from last year that we can try to build upon is how hungry we were and the passion we played with. We’re not there yet, but if we can somehow find our way to get close to it, then there’s no doubt in my mind that we have a chance to be a very special team."
The key players are familiar names to fans who followed the team last season — sophomore sisters Giuliana and Gioconda Mendiola and junior Loree Payne at guards, junior forward Emily Autrey and sophomore forward/center Andrea Lalum.
The bench, led by O’Neill, looks like a who’s-who of former high school stars from Snohomish County.
"She’s somebody who every day comes with a very positive, coachable attitude," Daugherty said. "She’s a great example to the younger players of how hard you have to work, how focused you have to be mentally and how tough you have to be physically."
"Kristen is a very good athlete with great size (6 feet 1 inch)," Daugherty said. "She’s learning the system very well. She missed about two weeks (of practice) because of the surgery and she could only do things at half speed."
"Talk about a competitor. Talk about a leader," Daugherty said. "She has a very high basketball IQ. She picks up the game very quickly and understands that not only do we need some of her punch outside, but she’s got a good handle on getting the ball inside. We need that because we have to establish a better inside presence this year."
"Every time someone gets hurt, we all look to see if Brockman was on the court," Kellie O’Neill joked.
"Brockman the Bruiser. Brockman the Bulldog. Brockman the Enforcer," Daugherty said, listing her nicknames. "She is very athletic, very strong and we want to be sure that she’s using that type of athleticism to be strong and tough and do the dirty work. Setting screens and rebounding and the things that take a lot of hard work and guts."
One thing is certain: the freshman aren’t here to stay planted on the bench and learn, from afar, a complicated system that involves 30 offensive and defensive schemes.
Already, Kristen O’Neill has played 26 minutes, Burt 14 and Brockman eight.
"We recruited them for a reason," Kellie O’Neill said. "We can’t afford not to have them on this team. We need them to gain confidence and realize that it’s OK that you don’t know the plays now, but you need to start getting a feel because you’re going to have a big impact.
"That’s one of the things we stressed in the meeting."
Oh yeah. The meeting.
Kellie O’Neill promised that it will have a dramatic impact, beginning with tonight’s game.
"There was a new spirit and fire in that room," O’Neill said. "People were embarrassed and they want to go out and fight. It’s going to be a whole new game this weekend.
"We had a couple of setbacks last weekend. But we have too much pride to let something like that happen again. I guarantee it won’t happen again."