The Huskies average 85.6 points per game, which is fifth in Division 1. The Bulldogs allow only 56.2 points, which is 22nd in the nation.
OKLAHOMA CITY — To get acclimated to the surroundings, Mike Neighbors wanted the Washington women’s basketball team to get to Oklahoma City as soon as possible this week.
The Huskies landed Wednesday afternoon just in time to catch an NBA game, to which Mike Neighbors sheepishly offered up an apology.
“I hope our die-hard Seattle Sonics fans will forgive us for going to the Thunder game,” the UW coach said. “But we had a great time.”
Yes, indeed, the Huskies are back in their element.
On the road. As an underdog. In the NCAA tournament Sweet 16.
A year ago, the Huskies’ path to the Final Four in Indianapolis sent them to Maryland and Kentucky where they captured three upsets to crash the biggest party in their sport.
By comparison, this year’s trek to the regional semifinal has been relatively easy considering a pair of blowout wins at home in the opening rounds last week.
“After that first round, there’s no easy games,” UW coach Mike Neighbors said. “And in this round, you’re facing teams that usually have a history of winning. Not just winning games, but championships.
“Every one of these teams have great traditions. Great coaches. Great players. … And usually the team that comes out on top is the team that focuses on themselves and plays their game.”
No. 3 seed Washington (29-5) is paired against No. 2 Mississippi State (31-4) in a classic matchup that pits one of the highest scoring teams in the nation against one of the stingiest squads in the country.
Led by Kelsey Plum, the NCAA’s most prolific scorer, the Huskies tally 85.6 points per game, which ranks fifth among 345 Division 1 teams.
Conversely, the Bulldogs allow an average of 56.2 points, which is 22nd in the nation.
Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer has been coaching basketball for 32 years and he hasn’t seen a player like Plum since former Missouri State star Jackie Stiles, another 5-foot-8 guard with a dangerous jumper who wore No. 10.
“I had to go against Jackie Stiles three times when I was at Arkansas,” Schaefer said. “So I’ve got experience dealing with both of the all-time leading scorers. … We had a couple of bad experiences with (Stiles) and one good one. I’m hoping in my only opportunity with (Plum), we have a good one.
“Obviously, Jackie Stiles and Kelsey Plum are two of the best to ever play the game. And from an offensive standpoint, they are just so multidimensional. Their coaches use them in such a good, smart way. So it’s a tall task.”
Schaefer likened Plum, who is tops in the nation with a 31.8 scoring average, to Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
“They run a lot of stuff that the Rockets run,” the Bulldogs coach said. “They spread the floor. They play off of her. She’s smart enough to find who is open and those kids can make shots.”
In Monday’s 108-82 win over Oklahoma, Washington set an NCAA tournament record with 18 three-pointers. Plum and junior guard Natalie Romeo each had six while freshman guard Aarion McDonald was 3 for 3 from downtown.
“Aari is one of a kind,” UW senior forward Katie Collier said. “She’s absolutely fearless and that shows in her game. You wouldn’t think these were her first (NCAA tournament) games. But they are. She has an incredibly bright future ahead of her.”
Washington has scored fewer than 79 points in just three of its wins, while Mississippi State hasn’t allowed 79 in any of its victories — so something has to give Friday.
It’s the first matchup between the teams who had two common opponents this season.
In nonconference action, the Bulldogs shut down Oregon for a 75-63 win and beat USC 76-72 in Los Angeles. Washington split two games with Oregon — winning 99-77 in Eugene and falling 70-60 in the Pac-12 tournament. The Huskies swept USC — 77-67 at home and 87-74 on the road.
“Coach Vic Schaefer is a defensive guru,” Plum said. “Just watching on film, their intensity and pressure — they put pressure on opponents.
“They try to turn you over and try to make you take bad shots. They force a lot of charges, and then just the rotations on defense. They play together as a team and they are very deep.”
Friday’s winner advances to the Elite Eight on Sunday to face either No. 1 seed Baylor (32-3) or No. 4 Louisville (29-7).
“It feels familiar yeah,” Collier said. “We’ve been here. Not this locker room of course, but in this situation of being on the road in a win-or-go-home situation.
“So having that experience of playing in this game helps. I’m way less nervous than I was last year that’s for sure.”