The final count ended up being 418 mistakes made as a rookie head coach, but Washington’s Mike Neighbors takes pride in those errors.
He kept track to share with others this weekend at the women’s Final Four in Nashville. His first season — mistakes and all — finished in a 20-victory season, upsets of Stanford and California and three victories in the Women’s NIT. For that, Neighbors is a finalist for the Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year award.
The winner will be announced at a banquet in Nashville on Monday.
“I have a goal card just like the players do,” said Neighbors, who was close friends with Maggie Dixon before she died in 2006 after leading Army to its first NCAA appearance as a first-year coach. “And I wrote it down. If we have a good season and I do a good job as a coach that (award) could be something that comes along and it would be a huge honor.”
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Not reaching the NCAA tournament and getting swept by Washington State for the first time since 1975 are blemishes in Neighbors’ first year. Washington also faltered in an opening-round defeat against Utah in the Pac-12 tournament.
Foul trouble against Texas-El Paso in the WNIT quarterfinals ended UW’s season last Monday.
But the Huskies defeated Stanford (No. 3 at the time), California (No. 18) and Colorado (No. 21). And the 20-14 finish is the third 20-victory season in a row. It’s the first time UW has won 20 in at least three seasons in a row since a seven-year streak from 1984 through 1991.
Guard Kelsey Plum was named Pac-12 freshman of the year as she set numerous UW records, including most points scored in a season (712). Junior Jazmine Davis, a three-time All-Pac-12 guard, teamed with Plum to form the nation’s second-highest scoring backcourt. And senior Mercedes Wetmore left as the UW career leader in games played (126), a mark Neighbors pushed his team to achieve for the guard.
Davis (98) likely will pass the mark next season, but Wetmore is significant in committing to UW as it was going through four consecutive losing seasons and graduating after being part of three consecutive winning teams.
“Going into next season, I want them to not take no for an answer,” said Wetmore. “You can’t expect an NCAA tournament berth to happen, you have to make it happen. I hope it’s next year. But once Nabes (Neighbors) gets them to the NCAA tournament, they’re not going to be out of it.”
Kassia Fortier, who started as a walk-on then suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and Wetmore are the only players not returning.
Sophomore forward Talia Walton and junior forward Aminah Williams, the team’s rebounding leader (10.4 a game), join Davis and Plum as returning starters.
Walton is scheduled to undergo minor surgery on her right knee this week.
Sophomore forward Heather Corral is expected to return from knee surgery. Freshman guard Brianna Ruiz (knee) is medically cleared to play.
“We’re going to have tremendous talent,” said Walton, who averaged 11.1 points and 7.8 rebounds. “We just need to realize how good we are and believe in ourselves.”
If the team stays healthy, UW should have its strongest bench in years. It’ll include freshman point guard Kelli Kingma (Jackson High), freshman forward Hannah Johnson and possibly center Macy Keen, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Miami who enrolled at Seminole State College to help meet academic qualifications.
Neighbors could announce more signings during the spring period, which begins April 16.
“When you look at our roster, the only thing we’re missing is that size, and (Macy) would certainly give us that,” said Neighbors, who still expects freshman centers Chantel Osahor (6-2) and Katie Collier (6-3) to contribute inside.
Osahor proved to be a solid rebounder (4.4). Collier, a high school all-American, averaged 3.8 points in her first season after returning from a season-ending knee injury last year and cancer her senior year in high school.
“The NIT experience allowed our kids to see where the finish line is,” Neighbors said. “It’s not the Pac-12 tournament. It can be three more weeks after that.
“We got a little closer and we learned some really valuable lessons on what it takes … But 418 mistakes is a bunch. I know I can do a lot better, and hopefully in turn it’ll make our team a lot better in continuing to build this program.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067