Whether they’ve got one game left together or six, one thing is for sure: Washington coach Mike Neighbors and his seniors are relishing every remaining moment.
The Huskies begin NCAA Tournament play Saturday at home against Montana State, in the wake of an unprecedented Final Four appearance last season. For Arkansas native Neighbors, who took over the program in 2013, two of the seniors leading the team are his first recruits, as he had to re-recruit them.
For Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor, their commitment to Washington and their coach has yielded important life lessons in hard work, cooperation and trust.
Neighbors was an assistant for the Huskies under coach Kevin McGuff for two seasons when McGuff announced he was taking the head coaching job at Ohio State. High school seniors Plum, a top recruit, and Oshor were heartbroken; Plum said publicly that it was like “being broken up with.”
From that point, the story has become well-known: Neighbors, who had been the primary contact during Plum’s recruiting, kept up a text message dialogue with her. As the University debated whether or not to elevate Neighbors to the head coaching position, Plum vacillated between staying or leaving. Finally, Plum messaged him: “If you stay, I stay.” Once Neighbors got the job, he texted her: “Are you a person of your word?”
Both Plum and Osahor remained with the Huskies. And over the course of four years, each has built both personal and team legacies.
Plum, who had the highest Division I scoring average all season, became the NCAA all-time scoring leader a few weeks ago on a school-record 57 points in a game. Osahor has lead Division I rebounding all year and broke a Pac-12 single-game rebounds record in January, with 30. She became Washington’s all-time rebounds leader in February. This year the Huskies have been ranked within the top 12 for the entire season.
Their Final Four run last spring pushed the school and both players into the national spotlight, and underscored Neighbors’ work to help improve the conference RPI by successfully encouraging other coaches to increase their strength of schedule. This year a record seven Pac-12 teams received bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Neighbors gives the credit to athletes around the conference, as well as those on his own team.
“The level that the Pac-12 has risen to since these kids got here – the intensity, the impactfulness, the national recognition and the national perception – that is something that….we were selling the vision when we were recruiting them,” he said. “The fact you can do all that, that’s the legacy that this group has.”
Neighbors has also become known as a coach who shares some decision-making responsibility with his upperclasswomen. During a game last year, Plum drew up a play to discuss with Neighbors, who turned around and used it in the timeout huddle. He has also given Plum a lot of freedom on the floor – a term she calls “the green light.” That philosophy has lead to mutual respect between coach and athletes.
Osahor said the bond has pulled them through tough times and good times.
“We’ve been through a lot to get to where we are now; it’s been blood, sweat and tears,” Osahor said. “We trusted him; we put everything on that guy, and he trusted us even more, if that’s even possible.”
Neighbors has admitted he made “plenty of mistakes” in his first years as a head coach. But he said he owes his ascent to his two team leaders.
“I wouldn’t be coaching without them,” he said. “They went to bat for me to get the job, some of them. They’ve stuck with me through tons of mistakes my first year and a few less in their sophomore years. I wouldn’t be coaching college basketball if it weren’t for them.”
Likewise, Plum attributes her success to Neighbors.
“It’s been cool, the opportunity he’s given me, the green light,” she said. “Coming in he named me captain as a freshman; he had a ton of faith in me. He always put the ball in my hands. And as a player, when your head coach believes in you that much, you’re able to play within yourself and play free. There’s nothing but love there, and I’m grateful.”
“I just love to play basketball, and I love to compete. But because he’s given me the opportunities is the reason I’ve been able to break records like that.”
Players have learned important relationship lessons during their time at Washington.
“What we’ve been through is a compliment both on us as players and him not to give up on each other,” Osahor said. “The amazing thing is he has our backs no matter what happens. If I fight with him in practice, he’ll still have my back, and he knows we’ve got his. That connection, that chemistry with is is what’s got us to where we are now.”
Though Neighbors has been coaching for over two decades, it is clear that his first senior class as a head coach has a special place in his heart.
“I think winning games is an awesome thing, and I’m a fan of (Connecticut coach) Geno Auriemma,” Neighbors said. “But I wouldn’t trade coaching this team for anything. We have so much fun. I wouldn’t trade four national championships and a win streak for being in a locker room with these guys. The way they treat each other, the way they take coaching, they way they respect their opponents.”
“When you get around people who just get it, you cherish every single second you have with them. I owe everything I am in coaching to this group. It’s going to be hard to……they taught me way more about coaching than I ever taught them about basketball.”