Chantel Osahor scores 24 points as No. 7 seed Washington moves on to its first-ever Final Four with a 85-76 victory over Stanford, becoming the lowest-seeded team to advance this far since 2004. UW will face Syracuse in the national semifinals on Sunday.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — His team had played so freely and so focused for so long. It was, in stretches, basketball at its best, fast and fun and full of emotion.

Washington coach Mike Neighbors stood in stark contrast to all that as he stood alone at the far end of the Huskies’ bench, his back turned to the Rupp Arena court, his nerves and his superstitions controlling him. Moments later, the game would end with the most impressive feat in UW women’s basketball history — the Huskies, for the first time, are marching on to the Final Four — but in this most important final minute Neighbors couldn’t watch as his star player, Kelsey Plum, stepped to the free-throw line.

Plum and the Huskies, as they’ve done throughout this dominant run in the NCAA tournament, eased any worries, hitting 12 of their last 13 free throws in their 85-76 victory over Stanford in the championship game of the Lexington Regional on Sunday.

Sunday

UW women vs. Syracuse at Indianapolis, 3 or 5:30 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2

Neighbors could finally let loose. Soon, he was climbing five steps up a ladder, cutting off the remaining section of a net and twirling it around to cheers from the small gathering of Husky fans.

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“I’ve heard people say a lot of times it’s surreal and it’s numbing, but it really is,” said Neighbors, UW’s third-year coach. “I thought they were full of it.”

The Huskies’ postseason run is not only unprecedented for the program but it’s among the most unlikely outcomes in the history of the women’s tournament.

The seventh-seeded Huskies (26-10) are the lowest seed to advance to the women’s Final Four since 2004. Minnesota was also a 7 seed that year. They are also only the second team in history to reach the Final Four after finishing the regular season unranked, joining Arkansas, which in 1998 reached the national semifinals as a 9 seed.

“I want these guys to soak this thing in. It is so rare and I want them to remember all these things, 25, 30 years from now,” Neighbors said.

They’re not done yet. The Huskies will play No. 4 seed Syracuse (29-7) in the national semifinals April 3 in Indianapolis, with a shot at the national championship to be played two days later. The Orange beat the Huskies, 66-62, on Nov. 27, handing UW its first loss of the season.

“I don’t think it’s really hit us. We’re in the Final Four,” said junior post Chantel Osahor, who had 24 points and 18 rebounds Sunday, earning the region’s MVP honors. “It’s an opportunity that a lot of people never get.”

Neighbors, then an assistant at Xavier, had a prime chance to go to the Final Four in 2010, but those Musketeers lost to Stanford on an improbable sequence in the final seconds. The loss has stuck with Neighbors ever since and, being the superstitious sort, he blamed himself for letting thoughts of victory creep in late. Which is why, with Plum at the free-throw line with 45 seconds remaining, he anxiously turned his back to the court.

“I didn’t want (the Xavier loss) to happen again,” he said.

An impressive run

After knocking out Penn in the first round to win their first NCAA tournament game since 2006, the Huskies went on a roll that took out three ranked teams:

No. 5 Maryland UW upsets the Terrapins, who had been to two consecutive Final Fours, in College Park, Md.

No. 12 Kentucky UW beats the Wildcats in their backyard to reach the Elite Eight for the third time.

No. 13 Stanford UW knocks off the Cardinal, the Pac-12’s traditional power, to reach the Final Four for the first time.

That the Huskies hurdled Stanford, the class of the Pac-12 for three decades under coach Tara VanDerveer, not only offered redemption for Neighbors but it confirmed his belief that UW could emerge as a nationally relevant program.

Neighbors might not have been able to watch, but everyone else sure seems to be taking notice of this team.

The Huskies have one unquestioned star in Plum, a national player of the year candidate who scored 12 of her game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter Sunday. But what got them this far is their brand of team ball — free-flowing and unselfish — never more evident than in the first quarter.

They built a 12-0 lead in the first three minutes, getting two flat-footed threes from Osahor. They were lively and loose. Stanford was stunned.

UW led by as many as 15. They got contributions from everyone. Talia Walton had 12 points, seven rebounds and three steals; Alexus Atchley had 11 points; Katie Collier had six points and four blocks; and even seldom-used reserve Kelli Kingma hit two first-half three-pointers, helping the Huskies build a 37-26 halftime lead.

Stanford (27-8), the No. 4 seed, would hit eight of its first 10 three-pointers in the second half and pulled within 67-63, early in the fourth. Not to worry: Walton followed with a rebound basket, Atchley scored on a left-handed layup, Plum banked in a short jumper and Collier hit one of two free throws to push the score to 74-64.

The Huskies then closed it out at the free-throw line. They shot 49 percent from the field and held Stanford to 34 percent.

“Osahor was really the difference,” said VanDerveer, now 12-6 in Elite Eight appearances at Stanford. “… They have a very skilled team. Kelsey Plum is an All-American. Flat out, period. There is no player that we played on any other team all year that was harder to guard than her.”

Imperfect 10?
The Huskies became the fourth team to reach the Final Four with 10 losses. How the other three teams fared:
Year Team Record entering Final Four Result
2010 Oklahoma 23-10 Lost to Stanford, 73-66, in national semifinals
1998 Arkansas 22-10 Lost to Tennessee, 86-58. in national semifinals
1997 Tennessee 27-10 Beat Old Dominion, 68-59, to win national title
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