Uncommon poise: Chantel Osahor leads Washington to new heights

Chantel Osahor exults after Washington beat Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics.
Chantel Osahor exults after Washington beat Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. Especially if that book is called Chantel Osahor.

The 6-2 junior is listed as a forward/center on the Washington roster, and to be sure, she is a formidable presence in the paint. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, as the Huskies improbably ascended into the Final Four, Osahor’s defense under the rim had opponents settling for outside looks.

But aside from being the team’s leading rebounder with 11 per game, Osahor often plays more like a guard. She is the third-leading scorer and is second in assists behind point guard Kelsey Plum, averaging 3.4 per game. Osahor has had more steals than blocks this season.

Coach Mike Neighbors said Phoenix native Osahor gives the term “unique skill set” a whole new meaning.

“She has a power forward frame with a point guard mentality,” he said. “I used to say she’s the best passing post player I’ve ever seen, and now I don’t even say post player: I just say best passing player.”

“We use her that way in the half court. Kelsey gets the ball into her hands and lets her make the decision. I have not seen a kid who can both rebound the ball and pass it like her in many years.”

Neither has most of the country.

The Huskies plowed through the Lexington Regional, knocking off No. 2 seed Maryland and then No. 3 seed Kentucky on their own home courts. At the forefront of it was Osahor, with her unorthodox shot form, deadpan expression and seemingly casual approach.

At the beginning of seventh-seeded Washington’s game against No. 4 Stanford in the Elite 8 Sunday, an ESPN announcer repeatedly mentioned that Osahor hadn’t warmed up with her team. Then the reporter commented, “you won’t see her diving for a loose ball” – remarks that Osahor addressed with the Pac-12 Networks later. But as she exploded for 24 points and 18 rebounds, the sideline chatter subsided. And when all was said and done, Osahor was named the regional’s most outstanding player.

Washington assistant coach Adia Barnes said Osahor has to regulate her movement because of knee issues.

“She has arthritis in her knees, and there’s a lot of bone-on-bone movement because she lacks knee cartilage,” Barnes said. “She plays through pain a lot, and she manages it well. Somehow, she can play 35 minutes per game.”

Barnes said Osahor’s large frame and bigger size have resulted in coaches making assumptions about her in the past.

“She didn’t have many offers (from colleges) when she was in high school, despite playing for a state champion school,” Barnes said. “Coaches took a look at her and didn’t think she could get up and down the floor.”

Neighbors had seen differently on a recruiting trip. At the time, he was working for then-Washington coach Kevin McGuff, and was at a club ball tournament. He ended up in the wrong gym for the game he had come to see, but settled in to watch Osahor’s team. He was immediately captivated.

“She did one of her patented three-point wrist flick shots, which went in, and then she backpedaled to the other end of the floor and got a steal,” Neighbors said. “I started fumbling for my books, knowing that for the style of play McGuff was running, she’d be a perfect fit.”

Osahor liked the way McGuff told her to talk with her family about her decision first before committing, and she signed with Washington. But less than six months later, McGuff announced he was leaving for Ohio State. Osahor was heartbroken, and asked to be released from her Letter of Intent. But after talking to Neighbors, she changed her mind and stayed.

“I’m a big believer in my faith, and I feel like it was all part of God’s plan for me to come here,” Osahor said.

She missed a few games her freshman year with shoulder and foot injuries, and was a reliable reserve player as a sophomore. Osahor was a starter this year because she worked hard to improve her skills last summer with assistant coach Fred Castro, when Barnes was off on maternity leave after giving birth to son Matteo in June.

“We worked on my low post game,” Osahor said. “Adia is the post coach and Castro coaches the guards, but he knows just as much about post play.”

Osahor’s mental approach to the game has also matured.

“She’s continued to really impress me not only with her understanding of the game, but her ability to make teammates better, from a post position,” Neighbors said.

Much has been made the past two weeks about Osahor’s mid-range and long-range shots, which she makes with a strong wrist flick while her feet are flat on the ground. Osahor said she is amused by the attention.

“I started playing when I was 7, and I’ve always played like this,” she said. “Now everyone is noticing.”

Neighbors has been content with letting Osahor do it her way.

“She is really unique on the floor, and you couple that with her unique shot – nobody sees it coming,” Neighbors said. “It’s not what you teach at basketball camp, but it’s worked for her since third grade.”

The University of Washington women's basketball team defeats Stanford 85-76 in the Elite 8 on Sunday, March 27, 2016 at Rupp Arena.  Photo by Britney Howard | UK Athletics
Chantel Osahor helps cut down the net after Washington beat Stanford to advance to the Final Four. Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics.

Osahor’s on-court demeanor is as unorthodox as her shot, as she is usually placid. She knows it.

“I’m kind of a nonchalant player,” Osahor said. “When you see me fist pump after a shot, it’s a shock to some people.”

She was on the same club ball team for almost ten years, and played with high-caliber athletes like Courtney Ekmark, who she’ll see with UConn’s team this weekend; Dominique Williams of UCLA; and Louisville’s Courtnee Walton. So while Osahor loves the game, she is used to pressure situations.

“I played a lot of big games against a lot of talented players before I got to Washington,” Osahor said.

Conference play this season has made Osahor even more poised on the court.

“The Pac-12 this year has been so competitive, from top to bottom,” she said. “It’s easy to stay poised when you’ve faced a screaming Oregon State crowd.”

All of Osahor’s coaches initially saw her as a point guard, which is how she learned guard skills. Undoubtedly, this was because of not only her acumen for the game, but because of her intelligence.

She skipped eighth grade and went to play at St. Mary’s, which she guided to a national championship in her junior year, as well as three state titles. Barnes said Osahor’s presence on the floor is like having another coach there.

“She’s very smart, very perceptive – one of the most observant people,” Barnes said. “She studies the game, she studies game tape, she knows her opponent, she knows what RPI is.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Osahor wants to be a college coach someday. Neighbors – a brilliant statistics king himself – is already watching out for her.

“I’m working with that and I’ve talked to her about a lot of things,” Neighbors said. “Not too many great players can be great coaches, and she’s approaching ‘great player’ right now.”

Off the court, Osahor doesn’t talk a lot, which initially inspired Neighbors to read up on introverted people. But he decided Osahor didn’t fit that category.

“I don’t think she’s introverted, though she has some tendencies,” he said. “She’s really guarded about letting people in, but if you get in, you’re in.”

“She’s a deep thinker, and she’s always thinking about what’s best for everybody. It took me a while to understand how to coach her.”

Neighbors also said that behind the quirks and deadpan looks, there is a comic.

“She’s hysterically funny – quick with it, but with a really dry delivery,” he said.

For all of her love of the game, Osahor said the best part of basketball is the relationships that come from it.

“The best part of basketball is the teammates you have and the personalities you meet,” she said. “Sometimes you get to be good friends, and the relationships last forever because they’ve become your sisters.”

One particularly special relationship Osahor has developed this year has been with Barnes’ infant son. When the Huskies played at UCLA last month, Osahor made a beeline for Matteo after the game – as usual. She said she “claimed” the title of godmother to the baby.

“She gave me the title,” Osahor said of Barnes. “I love that little kid with all my heart.”

Barnes heartily endorses the relationship.

“Chantel is like my little sister – we’re really close,” Barnes said. “She’s my son’s godmother; she loves him.”

Osahor is confident that when Washington takes on Syracuse Sunday, they will be ready.

“We are peaking at a great time, and we have felt unstoppable,” she said. “We just have to play our game.”