Status of reserve center Mathilde Gilling, injured late in the Huskies' upset of Maryland on Monday, is uncertain for Friday's Sweet 16 game in Lexington.
Already, the Washington women’s basketball team had perhaps the shortest bench of anyone in the NCAA tournament, employing a six-player rotation in an extreme high-risk, high-reward gamble that helped lead the Huskies into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.
Kelsey Plum and Talia Walton, the Huskies’ top two scorers, rank first and fourth, respectively, in the nation in minutes played this season. Both have logged a full 40 minutes in each of the past four games.
Even so, UW coach Mike Neighbors believes his team is the “absolute freshest team” still playing.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” he said. “There’s 16 of us left, and I guarantee if we did a cardio test we’re in the best shape.”
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With the uncertain status of center Mathilde Gilling, who injured her knee late in the Huskies’ upset of second-seeded Maryland on Monday night, Neighbors’ theory will be put the test in Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against host Kentucky in the Lexington Regional.
The Huskies’ chartered flight flew back to Seattle on Tuesday, the team bus rolling onto campus a little after 2 o’clock, and Gilling was scheduled to have an MRI on her knee later in the day. It seems doubtful that she would be able to play against the No. 3 seed Wildcats on Friday.
“She’s really, really sore,” Neighbors said. “You don’t know with those things. It’s hard to speculate. … She’s a really tough kid. For her to be sore, we’ll see.”
Against Maryland, Gilling had six points and five rebounds in 20 minutes before the injury, one of her most productive games of the season. If she can’t play Friday, sophomore guard Kelli Kingma could be called upon.
“I think Kelli will be ready,” Neighbors said. “She’s come in at various times throughout the year and given us a tremendous lift.”
Another option: Neighbors could double-down on his extreme substitute pattern … and not substitute at all.
He tried that in UW’s upset of 11th-ranked Stanford at the Pac-12 tournament this month, taking out starting post Chantel Osahor for just four minutes after she picked up her fourth foul in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, UW’s four other starters — Plum, Walton, Alexus Atchley and Katie Collier — all played 40 minutes that night.
Would he try that again against Kentucky? “That’s not out of the question,” he said.
>>>WNBA can wait
Plum chuckled at the question.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’m coming back.”
Plum, a junior guard, is eligible to enter the WNBA draft after this season. She no doubt has the profile to be a high pick, and playing professionally has been a long-standing goal for her.
“I was sweating this one a little bit,” Neighbors said, pointing to Plum.
The WNBA can wait. Plum has more records to break at UW first.
Already the Huskies’ all-time leading scorer, Plum got to showcase her talent to a new audience on the East Coast in the NCAA tournament the past few days. She had 32 points, seven assists and six rebounds Monday, and she’s on pace to shatter the Pac-12’s career scoring record next season.
Neighbors also believes Plum should be a contender for national Player of the Year next season.
>>> A quick turnaround
Who needs sleep?
After an emotionally charged and sleepless night, most of the players were able to sleep on the 5.5-hour, cross-country flight back to Seattle on Tuesday. Not Neighbors. He was up all night and stayed awake throughout the flight, watching film of two Kentucky games and the film “Creed.”
“I’m too jacked up, man,” he said.
Neighbors said he received around 1,100 texts, e-mails and Twitter messages after the Huskies’ victory over Maryland.
The Huskies won’t be home long to celebrate: Their flight to Lexington is scheduled to depart at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Neighbors considered flying straight from Maryland to Kentucky but wanted his players to get home, do some interviews and sleep in their own beds for one night.