One of the biggest stars of last year’s NCAA Tournament was Washington center Chantel Osahor. With her dominating paint presence, her unusual shooting style and her winning smile, she helped push the Huskies to their first Final Four appearance, which made a lasting impression.
This season the 6-2 senior has picked up where she left off last year, and then some.
She has been the Division I rebounds leader all season long, currently averaging 14.9 per game. She broke the Pac 12 single-game rebounds record in January, when she snagged 30. Last weekend she became the Huskies’ all-time rebounds leader. Osahor is also the NCAA double-doubles leader, with 24 from 28 games.
But one holdover from last spring has not been welcome, and that is Osahor’s one-dimensional characterization. She has become known as a big player with an unusual shot, when there is so much more to her game – indeed, her personality.
The reality is that the Osahor’s diverse skill set and court vision is the cockpit that keeps No. 11 Washington running. Her meticulous regulation of her in-game output allows her to be efficient, despite some physical limitations. And though her presence in the paint may be foreboding, outside the game she is soft-spoken, adores children and isn’t quite sure what her next move after college may entail.
“The big girl with the set shot”
As she burst onto the national scene last spring, Osahor generated more buzz than any player in the Tournament, thanks in large part to her signature set-shot three-pointer. Her feet-on-the-ground, explosive shooting style was the subject of much talk and many video features.
Osahor’s size has also meant she is routinely referred to as “the big girl” in conversation and in news headlines. In Washington’s Elite Eight win over Stanford last March, a TV commentator remarked that Osahor “must be tired,” because she was getting up the court more slowly than her teammates. But the talk ceased as Osahor proceeded to put up 24 points and grab 18 rebounds to help seal the win.
Osahor has significant knee pain from the wear and tear of year-round play since the age of nine. This means she has to be smart with her movement, much like veteran professional players are.
“For the most part it’s just me knowing my body,” Osahor said. “Because I’ve grown and matured, I know how to do what I’ve got to do to play. I go through a lot of pain, so I’m pretty much used to it. It’s hard sometimes because I have my tough times when I’m up and down with my knees, but for the most part I do a good job of keeping myself relatively healthy.”
“It’s everything – how much you sleep, what you eat, what you put in your body. I have lost some weight since I’ve been here, so all that stuff has helped.”
Osahor shoots – and makes it 48 percent of the time – without her feet leaving the ground. She can make shots sitting on the floor, and she can make almost a full-court chest pass, all with little trouble for her knees.
Strength is her calling card, and she is double- and triple-teamed in the paint every game. But even then, Osahor is hard to stop.
Last year against Arizona, Osahor was battling with Wildcat post player Destiny Graham for a rebound. As the two scrambled for control of the ball, Osahor lifted the ball and the 6-3 Graham off the ground. Graham could do nothing but kick her legs back and forth in the air until the whistle blew and Osahor set her down.
Husky coach Mike Neighbors said Osahor’s value lies in her versatility, which he had to learn how to utilize.
“She’s an incredible player and was great from the day she stepped on the campus,” Neighbors said. “It took me time to figure out how to put her in the best position to be successful, because I have never seen a player who can do all the things she does.”
Neighbors isn’t exaggerating, as Osahor’s skill set is as diverse and honed as any player in the history of the sport. Besides rebounding, she sees the floor and can pass like an elite point guard, she knocks down threes at a 38 percent rate, and she can attack the basket like a wing.
Osahor’s efficiency has helped fuel one of the most potent offenses in the country. Despite being a post player, Osahor ranks 11th in the Pac 12 in assists per game, at just over four per contest. Even more impressive is her assist-to-turnover ratio. While it’s typical for a starting post player to have the highest number of turnovers and the lowest number of assists on a given team, Osahor ranks eighth in the conference with an 1.8-1 ratio.
To say Neighbors is impressed is an understatement.
“I’ve never seen a player who can pass or see the floor like her,” Neighbors said. “I used to say post player, but I dropped that a while ago. She can throw a chest pass 70 feet, on time and on target. She makes everybody on the court better.”
But Osahor has been put in the “big girl” box, with all the stereotypes and expectations that go with it. When she is physical on court, she is characterized as mean, and her lack of extreme speed and significant jumping ability causes the rest of her skills to be overlooked.
“People don’t give me enough credit for what I do,” Osahor said. “If they do say something they’ll call me ‘the big girl,’ but I’m still a basketball player and I do what I do, regardless of my size.”
“I think I’m a lot better than what people give me credit for. What I do, night in and night out is pretty tough to do given the minutes I play. I don’t just score and rebound – I pass, I make great decisions. I feel like, it’s just the way things in the game are mentioned. I feel like I do a lot of little things that I don’t get credit for, but that’s just how it is.”
Because of what her coaches call her high basketball IQ, Osahor essentially functions as the team’s point guard. During last weekend’s match up against USC, for example, it was Osahor who calmly set a screen at the top of the key, and then motioned All-American guard Kelsey Plum to go behind her. The Huskies ran the play and scored.
“I don’t think people realize that the offense goes through Chantel,” former Washington assistant coach Adia Barnes said. “She pretty much runs it.”
The Huskies will need her this weekend, as they try for a Pac 12 regular-season title, and in the conference tournament the following weekend, where they will be vying for playoff seeding. Osahor is ready for the challenge.
“I’ve always seen things before they happen,” she said. “I just try and get my teammates the ball where it’s best for them.”
A conundrum by any measure
As paradoxical as she is on court, Osahor is equally so off of it.
She was at home in Phoenix just after her freshman year when the always-researching Neighbors texted her to tell her about a book he had just finished: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain. He had read it specifically to try and better understand his post player.
“I went to Half-Priced Books and got a copy. I read it in a day and a half,” Osahor said. “I don’t personally think it’s who I am, but the way I am and the way people see me is different. I do think there are some aspects of that book that are me, and he sees that. He did read that book to figure out who I am, because I’m pretty tough to figure out.”
The contradictions loom.
Osahor dominates the paint, but doesn’t yell. Outside the game she has a calm demeanor and speaks softly, but she is also intensely competitive. She and Neighbors have played table tennis at his house for hours, and they played again on the road last weekend at their Los Angeles hotel. A pre-game ritual of Osahor’s is to sit on the floor with teammates and take shots, while pausing to talk and laugh. Yet, once the game tips, she is all business.
“I’m very competitive, but if you see me in shoot around I just make jokes all the time,” Osahor said.
Osahor puts a lot of time into training and skill development.
“She works incredibly hard so she can be as good as she is and she’s still getting better,” said Barnes, who took the head coaching job at Arizona prior to this season. “She’s taken the initiative to change her body and is in the best shape of her life, and is continually working to get in better shape everyday.”
Osahor also is a student of the game.
“She watches more film than anybody. She really studies the game and prepares for each opponent,” Neighbors said.
Yet Osahor hadn’t considered playing professional basketball until last year, and despite the fact that she might be drafted into the WNBA, she still isn’t sure whether or not she’ll play, if chosen.
“That’s a decision I’m still trying to make,” Osahor said last weekend. “I’m just talking to people I trust about that.”
A political science major, Osahor has served as an ambassador for the Office of Global Affairs cross-cultural leadership program that connects current Washington students with first-year students from China. She said balancing school and basketball has been a challenge.
“There’s class, then practice then reading and homework,” Osahor said. “Sometimes you just want to go and hangout with friends or relax, but you have reading to do.”
Barnes said Osahor has learned to handle the load with grace.
“She’s an incredible student and person,” Barnes said. “She works extremely hard in the classroom and she’s always there for the people in her life.”
But Osahor’s plans after basketball are uncertain.
“I’ll most likely coach,” Osaor said with a shrug.
It will be an easy jump, whenever she decides to make it, as Osahor is admittedly “obsessed with kids.” She became godmother to Barnes’ son Matteo when he was born in June, 2015, and never passed up a chance to hold or take care of the little boy at practices, on the road, or at the Final Four. And despite the distance between Barnes and her son and Osahor now, they remain close.
“I love that kid,” Osahor said.
Gearing up for more Madness
Washington and Osahor still have plenty of basketball to play before any career decisions are made. The Pac 12 regular-season champion will be decided after this final weekend of play, after which the conference tournament is on deck. And as been true all this season in the league, anything can happen.
Osahor remains focused on savoring the remaining time she has with her Husky teammates – particularly off the court.
“What happens when nobody is watching is what makes the entire experience special,” she said. “We are together so much, and I cherish every second because I know I wont be with this group of girls much longer.”
Osahor is amazed at what has come out of playing a sport she loves.
“I’m impressed with how far I’ve come,” she said. “I just played my game, and it has given me opportunities I never even thought of.”
And though a return trip to the Final Four this year is still to be decided, Osahor’s lessons from her time at Washington will stay with her.
“I’ve learned you have to be patient,” she said. “It’s been a long journey for me, personally, and as a player. Now where I’m at and what I’ve done – you’ve got to appreciate the ups and downs of the process – it’s tough. But you’ve got to keep grinding and be patient.”
Colin Davenport contributed to this story.