Monday, March 27, 2017
Page 3

After early hiccups, Huskies cruise past Bobcats

Kelsey Plum pushes the pace against Montana State. Photo courtesy of Washington Athletics.
Kelsey Plum pushes the pace against Montana State. Photo courtesy of Washington Athletics.

SEATTLE — For one quarter, the Montana State Bobcats matched the Washington Huskies basket for basket.

The Big Sky Conference champions traded scores with one of the best teams in the nation, and with a three-pointer from guard Delany Junkermier at the quarter horn, the Bobcats held a one-point advantage over the Huskies in their first round NCAA Tournament tilt at Alaska Airlines Arena.

“Every single time we had a breakdown, they made us pay,” said Washington head coach Mike Neighbors.

To start the second, Kelsey Plum hit two free throws on the first possession of the quarter, and the Huskies didn’t trail the rest of the night.

Despite a career-high 33 points from Peyton Ferris to lead all scorers, Plum’s 29 and Chantel Osahor’s nation-leading 28th double-double, with 16 points and 19 rebounds helped the Huskies easily overcome a sloppy first quarter in a 91-63 victory. Aarion McDonald and Natalie Romeo also finished in double figures for the Huskies, with 15 and 11 respectively.

Washington will play Oklahoma on Monday night with a Sweet 16 bid on the line.

“It is always hard to finish a season on this note, but at the same time we promised that we would give a great effort and we definitely left it all out there,” said Montana State head coach Tricia Binford.

Early on, neither team could get shots to fall, with both Montana State and Washington shooting under 35 percent after one quarter. But at least defensively, Binford was happy with the pressure the MSU defense was applying.

“It felt like we made them work for a lot of the shots that they got and the energy was fantastic,” Binford said. “Our effort was very solid.”

Forward Riley Nordgaard, who finished with 10 points, had another phrase for it.

“That was Bobcat basketball,” she said, “and things got away from us.”

While Washington began to pull away in the second, it was Ferris who single-handedly kept the Bobcats within striking distance.

Literally.

Kelsey Plum goes up for two of her 29 points in Saturday's win over Montana State. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.
Kelsey Plum goes up for two of her 29 points in Saturday’s win over Montana State. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.

The senior had all 10 of her team’s points in the quarter, as the Huskies took an 11-point lead into the half, after a 3-pointer from Plum with seconds remaining.

Though Neighbors said there was some rust early, the two-week lay-off from the team’s last game — a 70-69 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament — became a benefit as the game went on.

“We had to really fight to hang around in the first quarter and then it progressively started becoming an advantage to us that we were rested,” he said. “By halftime, it was a big part of it.”

Into the third quarter, the Bobcats stayed close, and trailed by just eight after a jumper from Oliana Squires with 5:27 to go. But a 12-2 UW run over the next three minutes effectively put the game on ice.

Washington outscored Montana State 28-16 in the fourth quarter, leading by as many as 31 in the final period.

“It was a great atmosphere and a really, really good basketball team,” Neighbors said. “We had to play very, very well to win because they were very, very well prepared and executed very well.”

Awaiting the Huskies on Monday night is Oklahoma, which beat the UW in close games both 2014 and 2015.

“They’re a very good team,” Plum said. “They’re moving well without the ball. They play together as a team. It’s not a one-man show out there. They all can shoot it They call can drive it. We have got to guard everybody.”

That game is set for a 6 p.m. PT tip-off on ESPN2.

Dribbles:

With the win, Washington will face Oklahoma for the third-straight season. The two programs played a home-and-home series, with the Sooners winning both matchups, 90-80 in Norman in Nov. 2014, and 71-68 in Seattle in Dec. 2015 … With a 3-pointer in the first quarter, Natalie Romeo hit the 1,000-point mark for her career … After the team’s post-game press conference, Montana State head coach Tricia Binford hugged university president Waded Cruzado, who made the trip to see the team. Binford on the response from Bozeman: “Our fan base has been fantastic all season long and it is one of the things my family truly appreciates about Bozeman the most. It is why we love it at Montana State. We are family and our family is the entire community, the university, the athletic department, and to have that crowd there was very, very exciting.”

Oklahoma holds off late Gonzaga push to advance

Oklahoma center Vionise Pierre-Louis successfully battles for a loose ball. Photo by Ty Russell, Oklahoma Athletics.
Oklahoma center Vionise Pierre-Louis successfully battles for a loose ball. Photo by Ty Russell, Oklahoma Athletics.

SEATTLE — For a few moments on Saturday night, you may have thought Gonzaga earned a top-four seed and home-court advantage, instead of playing 300-or so miles away in their first-round match up with Oklahoma.

The Seattle crowd was at its loudest after a three-pointer by Makenlee Williams brought the Bulldogs within five with just over six minutes to play, after trailing by as many as 15 in the third quarter.

A jumper from Jill Barta again brought Gonzaga within five, with 5:25 to go.

The margin wouldn’t get down to one possession.

Gonzaga scored just five points the rest of the game, as the Sooners advanced to play the winner of Washington/Montana State with a 75-62 victory at Alaska Airlines Arena. Oklahoma will play Washington on Monday night with a Sweet 16 bid on the line.

Oklahoma center Vionise Pierre-Louis set a career-high with eight blocks, and flirted with a triple-double with eight rebounds and 17 points, while guard Peyton Little had a game-high 18 points for the Sooners. Guard Laura Stockton had 13 points to lead the Bulldogs, followed by Barta’s 13, and senior Elle Tinkle’s 11.

The Sooners (23-9) came out firing from distance in the first quarter, making 6-of-their-first-7 attempts from 3-point range and at one-point had made seven consecutive baskets. They held a 13-point advantage after 10 minutes.

“After being off for two weeks, and the way we started in the first quarter — we shot it about as good as we could shoot,” Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale said.

During that hot start, the Sooners took full advantage of Gonzaga’s man defense. That wasn’t lost on Bulldogs head coach Lisa Fortier.

“They were driving and kicking, driving and kicking, and we weren’t able to keep them out of the middle to kick it up to their shooters,” she said.

That left Oklahoma with plenty of open looks.

“I was frustrated,” Stockton said, “because I feel like we were giving them those opportunities.”

Both teams went cold to start the second, with the Zags making just three field goals in the first five minutes, while Oklahoma scored just four points in the quarter’s first eight minutes.

That allowed Gonzaga to pull within seven with just over three minutes to go in the half, but 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions from guards Maddie Manning and Derica Wyatt got the lead back to 13 at the break.

Oklahoma got the lead to 15 in the opening moments of the third, but the Bulldogs shaved the deficit to single digits heading into the fourth.

On multiple occasions, Gonzaga pulled within two possessions, but get no closer in the game’s final minutes. Coale said she liked how her team “stayed in the possession we were in,” not just over the final quarter, but throughout the night.

For Pierre-Louis, the dwindling lead didn’t change how the team played.

“We didn’t let it scare us or speed us up at all,” she said. “We had a nice pace throughout the first half and when they started to run, it was because we had a lack of communication on our transition defense. But we didn’t let that frazzle us, and we just stuck with each other, and played for each other, then pulled it out.”

On the Gonzaga side, the frenetic pace of erasing the first quarter deficit may have shown up down the stretch.

“We had a lot of players with red faces on the bench,” Tinkle said. “It was tough, we were working hard to cut back into the lead. But if we have a better start, then we don’t necessarily have to do that, so we made it a lot more difficult on ourselves.”

Of all the moments at the finish, Coale said Gioya Carter’s three-point play with just over six minutes to play stands out.

“We had a lot of great plays, but that one stuck with me because we needed a basket so desperately,” Coale said.

Oklahoma outscored the Bulldogs 13-5 to the finish after Barta’s jumper pulled Gonzaga within five.

The Sooners will now play Washington on Monday at Alaska Airlines Arena, after the Huskies  dispatched Montana State 91-63 to advance.

Dribbles:

Oklahoma won the only other matchup between the two programs, a 72-68 victory in a preseason WNIT game in 2014 … The Bulldogs shot just 3-of-18 from 3-point range … Gonzaga returns three starters and 10 letter-winners next season … Oklahoma has now made the round of 32 three straight seasons … 12 of Peyton Little‘s 18 points came in the first quarter … The Sooners are now 16-3 all-time in NCAA opening round games …

Cooper’s five three’s lead Syracuse over Iowa State

Brittney Sykes helped lead Syracuse past Iowa State. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications.
Brittney Sykes helped lead Syracuse past Iowa State. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications.

Storrs, Conn. – Syracuse got off to a hot start in their NCAA Tournament opener and never looked back, handling Iowa State, 85-65.

Freshman Gabby Cooper set the pace for the Orange, hitting five three-pointers in the first 6:30 of the game as the team rushed out to a 22-6 lead. On the season, Cooper attempted a team-leading 263 threes, making just 70 (.289).  In her last two games, however, she is now 14-31 (.451).

Cooper was sanguine about her shooting, saying that she knew things were working.

“When the first one went in. it felt natural. It was a good day,” she said with a smile. “A lot of my shots were actually wide open, so that made it easier.”

The Cyclones were shell-shocked by their opponent’s hot scoring and superior athleticism, and they shot a miserable 2-18 for the first quarter. They settled down at the break and began to claw their way back, as the lack of discipline inherent in Syracuse’s playing style slowed the scoring onslaught. At the half, however, they had cut the differential only by four, and the teams went into the locker room with Syracuse ahead by 21, 45-24.

The Orange play an aggressive, high-contact defense that is effective in part because officials are loath to call a foul on every possession. They press for forty minutes, and Iowa State did not respond well, failing to get the ball to the middle and getting trapped and turned over on the sidelines.

When the Cyclones began to break the press, however, Syracuse did not recover well, and frequently gave up a score. When the press works well, however, it is frustrating and even demoralizing to the opponent. In this contest, Syracuse scored 19 points off 18 Iowa State turnovers.

Alexis Peterson put up 25 points for the Orange. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications.
Alexis Peterson put up 25 points for the Orange. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications.

The Cyclones couldn’t handle the quickness of Syracuse on either end of the floor. Neither team shot very well in the second half, but to have a chance of victory, Iowa State needed to dominate a quarter as Syracuse had done in the first period. They shot 44 percent in the third quarter, but hit just 2-9 threes – usually a scoring staple for them. They managed too few stops, and put Syracuse on the line for six points. When the Cyclones managed to close the gap by only one point in the period, any chance of a come back was done.

With a 20-point lead, Syracuse uncharacteristically but sensibly extended their offensive possessions. Iowa State cooperated with that strategy by allowing offensive rebounds, or fouling late in the shot clock. It was amusing to watch Syracuse point guard Alexis Peterson push the ball over half court, remember they were using clock, and pull back, almost in frustration.

Iowa State actually outscored Syracuse for the final three quarters, but not by nearly enough to overcome their 11 percent shooting in the first, or Cooper’s career day from beyond the arc. The freshman finished with a career-high 24 points, all of them from downtown (8-15).

Brittney Sykes led the Orange with 28 points, and Peterson had 25. Along with Cooper, the trio scores all but eight of their team’s points – something they are unlikely to do against the UConn defense. But on this day, it was more than enough to move on to a Monday date against them, which will be a rematch of last year’s National Championship.

Iowa State had four players in double figures, but shot just 38 percent as a team, and only 30 percent from three-point range. Coach Bill Fennelly said Syracuse didn’t play like an eighth seed.

“I’d like to see how they came up with that,” Fennelly said of the Selection Committee.

Freshman Gabby Cooper hit five three-point shots in the first 6:30 of Saturday's game. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications.
Freshman Gabby Cooper hit five three-point shots in the first 6:30 of Saturday’s game. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications.

While the UConn-Syracuse rematch will be the story of the week around the country, the reality is that the No. 9 seed out-played Syracuse for 30 of 40 minutes today, while UConn scored 116 points in their win. Monday’s game will, obviously, be a hard-fought, physical game, because the Orange are that kind of team. They are also the kind of athletic group that could give the Huskies fits, in large part because their outstanding guards may be able to get them in foul trouble.

Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman’s agreed that a win is possible, but he knows the upset will require a complete game.

“We need to get the ball in the basket so we can set up our pressure,” he said. “We need to progress through our sets and get the ball in the basket. If we can shoot forty percent & get into our pressure, that’s the key.”

 “That’s who we are, we shoot the three & we press,” he continued. “We’ve got to scramble this game up and speed the game up and hit our shots.”

UConn knows this about Syracuse. They also know that the key to that team is still seniors Peterson and Sykes – not Cooper –  no matter how hot her shooting. The Huskies have a much more active defense than Iowa State. And Syracuse has not beaten UConn since 1997. UConn has not lost a first or second round game since 1993. But Monday’s game should be fun.

“Why not us?” Well, you’re playing Connecticut in Storrs

Napheesa Collier drives the ball up court. Photo by Steve Slade.
Napheesa Collier drives the ball up court. Photo by Steve Slade.

Storrs, Conn. – Any competitive basketball player has to enter each game believing that a win is possible. Albany’s Cassandra Edwards said as much entering their first round contest against Connecticut, when she agreed that her approach was “Why not us?”

Everyone, of course, knew that was not going to happen. But for a short time on Saturday, Albany hung with the Huskies, in large part because UConn came out looking rusty and sloppy. They committed four early turnovers and missed several defensive rotations that gave the Great Danes four early open threes, but they made just one of them.

Nonetheless, the Huskies’ talent was too much, and Albany had no answer for their inside game.

The Danes are a talented team. When UConn gave them an open shot opportunity, they capitalized, shooting a very creditable 44 percent in the first quarter. Albany’s eight fouls were the major difference, as the hosts tallied 11 from the line and led 37-18 after ten minutes. The Huskies shot 66 percent from the field in the quarter.

Albany continued to run their system, which was organized and generally well-executed. Their problem was defending the Huskies, who shot 58 percent for the half, including 15 of 18 free throws to go to the locker room with a 58-32 lead.

There was nothing slow or sloppy about UConn’s start to the second half. In just a minute and ten seconds Kia Nurse hit a three, the Huskies scored on two fast-break layups off Albany misses, and Katie Lou Samuelson stole an inbounds pass and scored. Nine points in a flash, forcing a timeout by Albany Coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee. They regrouped and continued to play a possession at the time.

Gabby Williams locks down on defense. Photo by Steve Slade.
Gabby Williams locks down on defense. Photo by Steve Slade.

Down 36, Imani Tate blocked a Napheesa Collier attempt and chest-bumped her teammates. That reaction typified the Albany team approach: whatever the score, they are going to play hard, and enjoy their successes. Tate finished with 19 points, though it required 24 shot attempts (.250). Jessica Fequiere finished with a much more efficient 16 (6-11, .550).

UConn continued to be UConn. The team shot 86 percent in the fourth quarter, with the starters sitting for the final five minutes. Crystal Dangerfield hit four of five threes in the second half, a great sign going into more competitive games. Connecticut hit 17-20 free throws, continuing a pattern that ranked them seventh in the nation,

The final score: 116-55. The Huskies 116 points tied a NCAA first round record. UConn shot 62.3 percent, 50 percent (13-26) from three-point range. Five Huskies scored in double figures. Three scored twenty or more (Collier 24, Nurse 24, Williams 20).

Texas shakes off late-season fatigue for NCAA run

Joyner Holmes prepares to turn and execute. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Joyner Holmes prepares to turn and execute. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Joyner Holmes prepares to turn and execute. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.

It’s been a long season for everyone, but few teams have experience a roller-coaster ride like the Texas Longhorns.

Entering the NCAA tournament, coach Karen Aston hopes they are revived and hungry after a tired-looking last two weeks. But if yesterday’s energized, first-round win is any indication, Texas may be ready for a deep run.

They endured a daunting early-season schedule, facing several top-ranked teams – and they paid for it. Their opening day saw a double-digit loss at Stanford, then ranked No. 10. Six days later they lost again at No. 9 Mississippi State. Texas hosted, and lost to, South Carolina in their fifth game, and traveled to UConn immediately for a dramatic drubbing by the Huskies (72-54) three days later. They limped home to Austin with a 2-4 record, feeling tired and battered. The pre-season No. 8 team in the nation slipped to No. 17.

But there was a funny thing about all that losing: the team learned to appreciate what winning looked like, and they emerged from their losing streak with a toughness that gratified their coach. In the next two months, Texas reeled off 19 straight wins.

In a long conversation last week, Aston talked openly about the transition of her team from wide-eyed observers to focused winners, and then to a tired team that couldn’t prevail in close games. She also admitted that the process is far from complete.

Ariel Atkins calls out on defense. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Ariel Atkins calls out on defense. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.

“I think [the early schedule] was the best way to make some of them grow up,” Aston said. “It wasn’t all planned. I don’t want to take credit for putting that schedule together. . . . We put a pretty good schedule together, then the SEC-Big 12 game emerged, and put us against South Carolina. And that was actually two days prior to going to UConn.”

“Some individual players gained a little bit of confidence from the fact that we knew we were in the (UConn) game for a large part of it without one of our best players (Guard Ariel Atkins, injured at UConn). (We were) a young, inexperienced team that didn’t know the nuances of being on somebody’s home court, and how to compete in road games.”

With a week’s rest and playing at home, the Longhorns defeated Tennessee, 72-67, on Dec. 11. They hosted five games in a row – three against lesser competition – winning them all. The team left  for winter break with a winning record.

“Coming back from Christmas break they started saying ‘Let’s see how many good practice days we can string along,’ Aston said. “There weren’t many practice days when I had to raise my voice. . . . Some of the young ones grew up a little bit. Our defense started to play a little better, and their understanding of the day-to-day work that you have to do at this level was a little better.”

The Longhorns won at home by twenty in the conference opener against Texas Tech, then held on for their first road win, at Iowa State. They were on a roll until mid-February with a string of 19 victories, finishing with another late-scheduled non-conference game against No. 5/4 Florida State. Their win over the Seminoles elevated them to No. 6 in the AP poll. During the streak they beat five ranked teams, highlighted by a convincing road win against No. 2 Baylor.

Then the team hit a wall, losing four of their final six games, including a second round Big 12 tournament loss to eventual champion West Virginia. They lost those games by a total of 11 points, signaling an inability to close out games.

Brooke McCarty fights through defenders. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Brooke McCarty fights through defenders. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.

“All those losses had different scenarios. . . . A couple of those losses potentially came from being flat from the battle of the year, and emotionally and physically spent and not knowing how to fight through that,” Aston said. “I mean, a championship team fights through that. I’m not making excuses for them, because if we’d done that we’d be sitting in a different position right now. But his young team doesn’t have the capacity to focus like that when they are fatigued or when they maybe have this idea that they’re in a better place than they’re really in.”

“I don’t mean that negatively. We really don’t have a person in the locker room that is really hard-nosed enough to keep that in check. I think that kind of bit us in a few of those games when we waited too late to play hard. . . .  We need to learn from these experiences and get better. And it’s all the responsibility of the coach to figure that out.”

Atkins and fellow junior guard Brooke McCarty are the leaders most likely to make the jump to the locker room leader that Aston is seeking, but the coach is not convinced that 10 days rest going into the Tournament will bring that change about. She remains hopeful, however, that one of those guards will add the necessary vocal leadership to take this talented team far into the postseason.

Ariel Atkins powers up a shot. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Ariel Atkins powers up a shot. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.

Atkins and McCarty stand alone in their consistent effort both in games, and in practice. They lead the team in scoring (13 and 14 points per game, respectively). McCarty runs the point, with a solid 2:1 assist/turnover ratio. Atkins creates her own shot easily and often.

“They are the gym rats. . . . They’re always working hard in practice,” Aston said. “They’re always doing their job. They’re always prepared, and they expect everybody to follow that. But sometimes there has to be more than that. Sometimes there has to be a hard conversation. . . That’s the next step of leadership for those two, and they are ready to take that step.”

Whether that leadership process moves forward enough this month to carry Texas to the Final Four is yet to be seen. But this is a team that cleaned up the awards in the Big 12. Aston was Coach of the Year, McCarty Player of the Year, Brianna Taylor Defensive POY, and forward Joyner Holmes Freshman of the Year. Atkins made the all-defensive team. That’s a lot of potential in one roster.

Through the season, the Longhorns have scored about the same 73 points a game. The stars’ scoring average has remained constant. What has changed is the cohesiveness of team play, and much improved defense, evident in all those awards. When the team is mentally focused and physically sharp, they are capable of beating any team in the field.

Brooke McCarty rallies the Longhorns. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Brooke McCarty rallies the Longhorns. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.

One of the least-predictable of the key contributors is the Holmes, a 6-3 forward. Highly-regarded coming out of high school for her size and guard-like skills, she has shown that she can contribute everything the team had hoped she would, but only on certain days. The excitement in Aston’s tone was obvious when discussing her freshman.

“She came in here with some very unique physical tools, and she had the opportunity to learn because there was that hole in the four position that let her play a lot from the very start,” Aston said. “She’s had some incredible highs and some incredible lows, and that experience made her better. I thought she hit that proverbial freshman wall, . . . but I think she’ll regroup and rejuvenate and be a lot better in the NCAA tournament than she was down the stretch.”

Aston said Holmes’ game acumen is her strongest quality.

“Her IQ is incredibly high which gives her an opportunity to be a really, really, really special player because she does understand what’s supposed to happen,” Aston said. “I say she’s a step ahead in her mind. That’s a unique quality for any player, but more so for one that’s her size.”

At the same time, the freshman has proven extremely coachable.

Joyner Holmes has been one of the Big 12's top freshmen this season. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.
Joyner Holmes has been one of the Big 12’s top freshmen this season. Photo by Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics.

“Another thing that surprised me was that she really bought into rebounding,” Aston said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that she’s been willing to get in there and get dirty & rebound. At times she’s been able to lead our break. When you look at the talented freshmen across the country, I can’t put on one hand the ones that really, really met those expectations put on them. And she one who has done so.”

Texas drew a three-seed in the Tournament, and therefore hosts the first two rounds in Austin. Last night they crushed Central Arkansas, 78-50 with a defense that was organized and active, and all 11 players scored at least four points.  Next up tomorrow is No. 6 NC State. A second win would take the Longhorns to the Lexington Regional, where Stanford is the No. 2, and Notre Dame the No. 1 seed.

Aston has revived her Texas team from a slide into mediocrity, bringing them back to national prominence in just six years at the helm. She has a refreshing willingness to discuss the challenges facing her team, along with a coach’s fierce loyalty to her players.

“The thing that I love is that they are a really good bunch of kids. Like, I don’t have a lot of off-the-court issues, we don’t seem to have a lot of drama,” Aston said. “They don’t seem to take things too seriously. And that seems to be their best quality and their worst quality all at once.”

Her team’s fondness of their coach, and their goofiness, is exemplified by Taylor’s whimsical description of Aston.

“She’s like a roasted marshmallow,” Taylor said with a smile. “You know, when you roast a marshmallow, it gets all crispy and hard on the outside but inside it’s all mushy and gushy? Your freshman year you only see the outside hard crispiness, but by senior year, you start to see the inside and how much she cares about us.”

No doubt, both parts of the roasted marshmallow this weekend. Texas has proven its ability to beat really good teams. Can they get to the third round and then get past Stanford and (probably) Notre Dame? Why not?

Round 1, day 1

Today’s lone upset:

Purdue 74, Green Bay 62.

Close ones:

Missouri advanced on a last-second shot, 66-64 over South Florida.

Oregon State survived Long Beach State, 56-55.

Kentucky held off Belmont, 73-70.

Ohio State got past Western Kentucky, 70-63.

More results:

Maryland dominated Bucknell, 103-61.

West Virginia overcame Elon, 75-62.

NC State beat Auburn, 62-48.

DePaul routed Northern Iowa, 88-67.

South Carolina thrashed UNC Asheville, 90-40.

Texas downed Central Arkansas, 78-50.

Mississippi State left no doubt: 100-69 over Troy.

Notre Dame took care of Robert Morris, 79-49.

Florida State handled Western Illinois, 87-66.

Arizona State defeated Michigan State, 73-61.

Creighton pounded Toledo, 76-49.

The Tournament:

Belmont left a lasting impression today, despite their loss.

Notre Dame showed balance in their opener.

The Bridgeport regional is filled with quality passers.

NCAA Tournament team news:

Great chemistry helps UCLA do the dirty work.

So you’re playing UConn: what it feels like to get the worst draw in sports.

The Rueck Effect: how a simple life lesson turned the tides for Oregon State basketball.

Tennessee is just another team to Dayton.

Montana State is excited for their test against Washington.

Oregon is emerging as the Pac 12’s new power program.

FGCU is peaking at the right time.

Boise State is unfazed by UCLA’s history.

The Bruins aren’t looking past the Broncos.

UConn is taking nothing for granted ahead of their opener tomorrow.

NCAA Tournament player news:

Stanford’s most emotional player, Erica McCall, eyes a national title.

Baylor guard Alexis Jones is expected back from injury tomorrow night for the team’s Tournament opener.

Louisville’s seniors are steeling themselves for a final NCAA run.

This could be the last NCAA Tournament for Tennessee’s Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell.

Alex Harris is excelling since her transfer to Dayton.

Bucknell seniors made their mark on the program.

Kia Nurse’s return makes UConn even better.

NCAA Tournament coach news:

Connecticut has little room for error, says coach Geno Auriemma.

The Lady Vols want to play better for coach Holly Warlick.

Tomorrow’s NCAA Tournament schedule.

College player news:

Affidavit: Kansas men’s player made threats against women’s team member McKenzie Calvert.

Another story on that situation.

College coach news:

Marshall has promoted Tony Kemper from associate head coach to head coach.

The game:

Selling tickets is only part of the issue for women’s basketball.

Women’s hoops needs more representation during March Madness.

WTF: Where’s the Fans? Texas is trying to address attendance.

WNBA news:

The Atlanta Dream will play games this season at McCamish Pavilion on the Georgia Tech campus.

Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart have signed a letter to defend LGBT rights in Texas.

Washington-Montana State match up chock full of coincidences

On Saturday, Big Sky Champions Montana State (25-6 overall, 15-3 conference) will make their long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament, as they face No. 3 seed Washington in Seattle.

If there was a word to describe the meeting, it would be “coincidental.”

The match up will take place 24 years to the day that the Bobcats last appeared in the Tournament. In what can best be described as a deja vu, Montana State’s opponent in 1993 was none other than the Washington Huskies.

The final score of that game saw the Huskies rout the Bobcats, 80-51, and the odds are certainly stacked against the visitors this time around, as well. This season Washington has possessed one of the highest-octane offenses in the nation, and they will play on their home floor in front of a sellout crowd.

Making it an even greater challenge, and adding to the deja vu feeling, is the Huskies’ average margin of victory this season. Against non-conference opponents, they have won by an average of 31.3 points.

But even if the odds are stacked heavily against them, Montana State will look to an unlikely weapon in senior point guard Margreet Barhoum’s familiarity with some of the Washington players. Barhoum, who hails from just outside Seattle in neighboring Edmonds, grew up playing club ball with Husky guards Kellie Kingma and Heather Corral, and faced starting center Katie Collier as an opponent.

While not as familiar with the players she will be facing, Bobcat freshman forward Madeline Smith is also a Seattle area native who grew up Snohomish, and feels very much at home in the Emerald City.

Having two local products on the roster also means quite a few fans will be in the stands cheering for Montana State, which may ease, even if to the smallest degree, the hostility of the Washington crowd.

None of the players on either roster was born yet when their teams met up the last time, but tomorrow the battle is on to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The athletes are connected not just by a single game from over two decades ago, but by countless hours together growing up and competing as both teammates and opponents in the Seattle area.

The stakes will be just as high Saturday as they were before, but the story will be even more intriguing.

Neighbors and his seniors formed a lasting bond at Washington

Mike Neighbors hugs Chantel Osahor and Kelsey Plum last March after their regional final win. AP Photo/James Crisp.
Mike Neighbors hugs Chantel Osahor and Kelsey Plum last March after their regional final win. AP Photo/James Crisp.
Mike Neighbors hugs Chantel Osahor and Kelsey Plum last March after their regional final win. AP Photo/James Crisp.

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.”

Related:

Washington-Montana State match up chock full of coincidences.

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