Washington relishing NCAA tourney run to Sweet 16
SEATTLE >> When Mike Neighbors recalled the most important weekend for Washington's women's program in 15 years, he of course remembered the scene on the floor as the Huskies stunned Maryland on its home court, followed by the celebration in the locker room.
But the most impressive thing Neighbors saw in the process of leading Washington to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001?
"Getting a police escort on the (Interstate) 495 at rush hour around Baltimore and Washington D.C.," Neighbors said. "It was amazing to watch the Maryland State Police manipulate traffic all the way from Bethesda to College Park."
These are celebratory times for the Huskies (24-10) after pulling off arguably the biggest upset in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament by knocking out a Maryland squad that was trying for a third straight Final Four and had lost at home only six times since its new arena opened in 2002.
Led by do-everything point guard Kelsey Plum, the confident seventh-seeded Huskies advanced to the Lexington Regional semifinals where they will face another home team, taking on No. 3 seed Kentucky on Friday night. For all the attention Plum has received as one of the premier scorers in the country — which she did again with 32 points against the Terrapins — the win over Maryland was validation that the Huskies deserve to be back in the conversation among the better programs on the West Coast.
"We stayed humble and faithful to the plan and what coach was talking about. We continued to chip away," Plum said after the win. "This team is very resilient."
The Huskies are handling the days leading up to Friday's matchup against Kentucky in a somewhat unconventional manner. Instead of staying on the East Coast, Washington chartered back across the country to Seattle on Tuesday, spent one night at home and chartered to Lexington on Wednesday.
Neighbors said he talked to a number of coaches who have been in similar situations in the past and the prevailing sentiment was to go home if possible. Then he brought it up to his players.
"When I brought it up to the team and talked to them about the pros and the cons to it they all wanted to come home," he said. "So I thought that was more important than any advice anyone could give me, was to listen to my team and that's what we decided to do."
The chance to sit around and do nothing for five-plus hours on a plane fit with how Washington has approached the latter part of the season. Because of a relatively short bench, Neighbors' belief is that his team should "play really hard and rest really hard." Sometimes that reliance on only six or seven players has gotten the best of Washington, as it likely did in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. After beating Stanford in the quarterfinals, the Huskies came up a possession short in a 57-55 loss to Oregon State in the semis.
But the investment in the win over Stanford was worth it for the Huskies. It was the confidence lift they needed headed into the NCAAs and by following it up with a one-possession loss to a Top 10 team the next day, it only boosted the belief that when the Huskies got into the NCAAs and got a day of rest between games, they could compete with anyone.
"It's making us all look like we had an insight into the future but we said next week is going to seem so much easier than this week because you're going to play a game, rest a day and play a game. And you're still going to play two good teams but you may not play two better teams than Stanford and Oregon State," Neighbors said. "So we were able to draw back on that. That's why we put so much emphasis in that Stanford game."