Washington’s women’s basketball team concludes its regular season this week with its biggest test of the season.
The Huskies are clinging to NCAA tournament hopes that appeared to fade on Sunday in a 20-point home loss to Oregon State. Yet, a trip to No. 5 Stanford on Thursday and No. 18 Cal on Saturday has UW aiming to pull an upset to at least give the tourney selection committee something to consider in selecting the 32 at-large bids.
Washington upset Stanford and lost by five points to Cal at Alaska Airlines Arena earlier this month. The winner of the Pac-12 tournament in Seattle in March will receive the conference’s automatic NCAA tourney bid.
“It’s nice going down there knowing we have so much to play for,” senior guard Mercedes Wetmore said. She finished with career highs in points (18) and rebounds (eight) while not committing a turnover in 40 minutes to propel the win against the Cardinal.
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The Huskies haven’t won at Maples Pavilion since 1999. As daunting as that sounds, UW faced an equally big obstacle in being the first Pac-12 team to hand Stanford a road loss in a string of 62 away games.
Coach Mike Neighbors had one of his better games in leading the team to the upset, using a tight zone defense to crowd All-American Chiney Ogwumike and force her teammates to make shots.
Ogwumike still finished the game with 23 points and 14 rebounds. But teammates were 9 for 41 from three-point range. The Cardinal didn’t control the Huskies’ penetration to the hoop, getting outscored 30-24 in the paint and sending the home team to the foul line 31 times in the eventual 87-82 Huskies win.
UW’s defense was an issue in Sunday’s loss, however. The Beavers’ bigger lineup outplayed the Huskies at every position, shooting 52.8 percent from the field in the 77-57 win while holding the Huskies to 26.5 percent shooting in the opening half.
A road loss to the Oregon schools in January sparked Washington through six wins in seven games. UW is hoping the Sunday loss will ignite another run – this time pulling enough quality wins to land an NCAA tournament bid.
Washington is hampered. Junior forward Aminah Williams suffered a sprained ankle in the Oregon win on Friday and did not practice on Tuesday. Neighbors expects her to start against Stanford on Thursday.
“I still think we’re playing good basketball,” Neighbors said. “We didn’t play good basketball (Sunday) but we can’t let it affect us going down on the road and into the (conference) tournament.
“I don’t worry about it with these kids because they’re so resilient…We know we can play a very good brand of basketball.”
In addition to the NCAA tournament, UW is playing for Pac-12 tournament positioning. Washington (16-11, 9-7 Pac-12) is currently tied with Washington State and USC in the league standings. WSU wins the tiebreaker over the other two, sweeping UW and defeating USC on the road in January.
Finishing either sixth or seventh in conference standings has the one benefit of being in the non-Stanford side of the bracket in the league tournament. Stanford (26-2, 15-1) clinched the No. 1 seed and its 14th consecutive regular-season conference title last week.
“It’s not already decided,” Wetmore said of the season.