Pac-12 preview: the University of Washington

This is the fourth in an annual season preview series of the Pac-12 teams.

Coach Mike Neighbors and the Washington Huskies celebrate their regional win and advancement to the Final Four last March. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Athletics.
Coach Mike Neighbors and the Washington Huskies celebrate their regional win and advancement to the Final Four last March. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Athletics.

The Washington Huskies gave new meaning to the term “Cinderella team” last season.

They were picked to finish midway through the Pac-12 Conference, which they did – but not without beating Stanford, UCLA and USC along the way. Then the Huskies began peaking. They lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament to eventual champions Oregon State, and they won a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Then Washington went on an unforeseen run that shocked even themselves. They knocked off Penn, Maryland, Kentucky, and finally Stanford in the Elite 8 to win regionals and advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

“I had to cancel all my tee times at the Final Four,” coach Mike Neighbors said before the Sunday semifinals last April. “I was telling people, ‘I can’t make it – we’re playing!'”

How will the Huskies follow up such a season? Neighbors, entering his fourth year as head coach, said they will continue where they left off.

“We will continue to live up to the high standards we set last year,” he said. “We had a team retreat recently to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

They have no monikers, special clothing or any other remembrances of their Final Four run.

“Our attitude is, that was last year’s team and this is a whole new team,” Neighbors said.

And though Washington lost Tournament star Talia Walton (16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) and fellow starter Alexux Atchley, there is still plenty left in the cupboard.

All-American Kelsey Plum (25.9 points per game) is poised to break more records in her senior season. She notched 1,000 career points early into her sophomore year, hit 2,000 the following season, and will break the 3,000-point barrier soon. Her quickness and versatility combined with her relentless work ethic has her poised for another monster year.

Another returning giant – both literally and statistically – is senior forward/center Chantel Osahor. She averaged 10.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game last season with her unorthodox shooting style and imposing presence in the paint, and combined with her uncommon poise, she became an NCAA Tournament sensation.

Redshirt senior forward Katie Collier (6 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) is the third returning starter.

Guard Brianna Ruiz, a sharp-shooting starter before tearing her ACL midway through last year, will be back, as will redshirt senior guard Heather Corral.

“There is a lot of experience in that group of players,” Neighbors said.

He called the three Husky freshmen “electric.” The group includes guard Aarion McDonald, who got 17 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists in one game on Washington’s summer trip to Australia. The other newcomers are forwards Mai-Loni Henson and GiGi Garcia and guard Amber Melgoza. Star guard Natalie Romeo, who transferred from Nebraska last spring, may get eligibility this year.

Neighbors, an assistant for the Huskies before stepping into the top post, said he made team goals his first year. In year two, when the team reached the goal and made it to the NCAA Tournament, Neighbors said “they thought they’d made it” just for being selected to the field of 64. They lost in the first round.

“I abandoned goal-setting after that,” Neighbors said. “Our theme is ‘be boundless.’ If we do that, wins and losses take care of themselves.”

Washington will play in the preseason WNIT and will face BYU before beginning conference play Dec. 27 at home, facing cross-state rival Washington State.