Maggie O'Hara couldn't shake the feeling walking off the Joyce Center floor in South Bend, Ind. It felt different from the other losses. It felt like the Huskies had won. The final score, 72-58...

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Maggie O’Hara couldn’t shake the feeling walking off the Joyce Center floor in South Bend, Ind. It felt different from the other losses. It felt like the Huskies had won.


The final score, 72-58 in favor of Notre Dame, didn’t agree with her gut. But it did attest to something deeper, the underlying theme of this Washington women’s basketball season.


“I came out of that game, and it didn’t feel like a loss,” O’Hara said of last Saturday’s game. “We played as close to two halves of basketball as we played this year.”


Athletes spend their sporting lives getting indoctrinated to and intoxicated by the power of the almighty “W.” This season, with no seniors on a roster that includes eight players that didn’t play in Division I last season, Washington coaches are teaching something different.


They’re teaching the Huskies about the process of winning, focusing on improvement. This is new for a program that advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2001, a different kind of learning curve, but important nonetheless.


“(With) the situation that we’re in, it is important that they see their improvements, that they see themselves getting better,” coach June Daugherty said. “It might sound different, but you have to keep the focus on the process and not necessarily the final outcome.”


In that regard, this group of Huskies will look much different — in the better sense — when it hosts No. 6 Baylor at 8 p.m. tonight than the team that upset nationally ranked Minnesota in November.


The Huskies started their current free fall after that win, losing on the road to Michigan, Utah and Notre Dame and getting blown out of Edmundson Pavilion by Alabama.


After starting 3-1, UW is 1-3 in its past four games. There aren’t a lot of Mickey Mouse U.’s on the schedule, as Daugherty likes to call games scheduled against soft opponents. Instead, there are ranked teams — No. 14 Minnesota, No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 6 Baylor and, on Dec. 29, No. 23 Arizona State.


Daugherty believes the schedule will make her team better. Believes it will lead to more wins in the Pac-10 Conference. Believes that the Huskies, ultimately, will be the big game on somebody else’s schedule instead of the other way around.


“We’ve always played this schedule, and we’ll continue to do that,” Daugherty said. “That’s the right attitude, that’s what we’re about, and I do think we’ll get there one day.”


Baylor’s only loss this season came against No. 1 LSU — by one point. If that wasn’t enough, UW has a few more tests this week in the form of finals.


But none bigger than the one tonight, when the improvement theory again is put to the test.


The fourth starting lineup Daugherty tried this season seems to have stuck for now. Freshman Andrea Plouffe returned from injury to give the Huskies their fourth post on a team with 11 guards. The offense slowly is improving.


Games like the Notre Dame loss can only help — they hope.


“It gave us some light at the end of that tunnel,” sophomore forward Breanne Watson said. “We just have to put it all together. So far, that’s been this year. We haven’t put it all together. But we’re close.”


Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com