“They’ve made each other better,” UW coach Mike Neighbors says of UW’s senior stars. He likens them to NBA legends John Stockton and Karl Malone. The Huskies host Montana State Saturday in an NCAA tournament opener.
From the sideline, Mike Neighbors extends his thumb and pinkie to form the popular Hawaiian gesture “Shaka,” which loosely translated means “hang loose.”
For the Huskies, it’s a signal to run their version of the pick-n-roll in which stars Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor execute perhaps the most effective offensive weapon in women’s college basketball.
It starts with Osahor, a 6-foot-2 center with point-guard passing skills, with the ball near the top of the key.
Montana State @ UW women, 6 p.m., ESPN2
She motions to set a screen for Plum, the 5-8 guard who holds the women’s NCAA Division I all-time scoring record, to begin an offensive set that’s excruciatingly simple by design and yet impossible to stop when perfectly executed.
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“Whatever the defense does, this play just makes them wrong if you read it right,” Neighbors said. “The key is having kids that can read it, and Chantel to be able to see a pass ahead.
“To nod at Kelsey. To look away and look off the defense. She’s like that quarterback that stares one receiver down while the other one is running a route that she’s looking for.”
The play works because Plum, who has become a workout fanatic this season, is always in motion on the court. She’ll dash behind Osahor to wiggle free from a defender in tow. Or she might fake using the screen and pop outside for a jumper. And maybe she’ll move into the lane for a layup.
And if none of that creates space for an open shot, then Osahor has the option to shoot a jumper, roll to the rim or find another teammate for a shot.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” Pac-12 Networks analyst Mary Murphy said. “No one else is doing what they’re doing because no else has the players to do it. Chantel is so masterful with the ball. She’s a point-forward out there. A quarterback zipping passes all over the place.
“And oh, by the way, her favorite target is the person who’s scored more points than anyone who has ever played. … So you have that combination running that offense, which is really quite remarkable.”
Neighbors likens Plum and Osahor to John Stockton and Karl Malone, who became NBA legends while perfecting the pick-n-roll. Stockton is No. 1 all-time in assists, while Malone is the No. 2 scorer.
“They’ve made each other better,” Neighbors said of UW’s senior stars. “It would have been much harder for Kelsey to do it without Chantel, and vice versa. Just seeing how far they’ve come and the steady improvement, that’s the one thing that I marvel the most at.
“They continue to push each other and really learned to get to know each other from their freshman year to where they are now. It’s all them. We try to give them opportunities, but it’s up to them to make the most of it and they have.”
For the third straight year, Plum and Osahor have carried the Huskies to the NCAA tournament during a record-breaking season for the UW standouts.
Washington, a No. 3 seed at 27-5, faces No. 14 Montana State (25-6) in Saturday’s opening round at Alaska Airlines Arena. Tipoff is 6 p.m.
Neighbors can pinpoint a dozen reasons why the Huskies have returned to the Big Dance, but one of his favorite stories is the origin of the “Shaka,” a play that’s become a staple of the UW offense.
“I saw it during the FIBA world championships a couple of years ago,” he said. “It was Portugal versus somebody. … We were just sitting there watching it, me and (former UW assistant Fred Castro). We were probably at Joey’s. I’m sure we were. That’s where we eat lunch all the time.
“We kind of looked at each other and said, what if we put Chantel at the spot? Then it became this endless writing on the backs of napkins.”
The play made its UW debut Nov. 27, 2014 in an 80-68 victory over Florida State during a Cancún tournament.
“It was a clinic,” Neighbors said. “It was Chantel running it with Kelsey. … Just screening and rescreening. Up screening. Down screening. And slipping.
“Literally we made a summer clinic video off of a half of basketball against Florida State, who at that time was ranked No. 7 in the country.”
The unique offense and Plum’s ability as a creative shot-maker has helped her to score 3,431 points during her career. This season, she leads the nation with a 31.7 scoring average and is 50 points shy of breaking the NCAA’s single-season record of 1,062. As good as Plum is in scoring, Osahor is equally devastating as a rebounder and multifaceted threat. She leads the country with 15.3 boards per game and broke UW’s single-season record with 474.
Osahor, who is second on the team while averaging 15.8 points, leads all Division I players with 27 double-doubles and tallied UW’s first triple-double this season.
“The game is so much easier for me with Chantel because she sees so much out there,” Plum said. “And what truly goes underappreciated is her defense. … She can do it all.”
Plum and Osahor account for 56 percent of the scoring on an offense that averages 84.8 points and ranks sixth in the country.
Admittedly, their relationship got off to a rocky start as freshmen. But in the past two years, they’ve developed a close rapport on and off the court.
“There’s nobody else I would have wanted to go through this than Kelsey,” Osahor said. “Not only is she the best player I’ve ever played with, she’s one of the best people I know.”
If you want to make Neighbors squirm, ask him who is more responsible for Washington’s success: Plum or Osahor?
“You could have a defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney argue that one until the end of time and I think you’d have a hung jury every time when it comes to impact or value to each other or whatever,” he said. “I’m not trying to dodge the question. I’m not.
“As a coach, I’m just so glad I got to coach them because I don’t know if I’ll ever have anyone like them ever again.”