As Washington enters the Sweet 16, here’s everything you need to know — from the Huskies' trash-talking star and underappreciated standout to the fans’ favorite and the quirky coach.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s OK to admit it: You weren’t paying attention to this team. Amid spring training, NFL free agency, and the NCAA men’s tournament, these women slipped by you like a B2 bomber.
But then, Monday night, it happened. The Washington women’s basketball team stunned second-seeded Maryland to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 15 years. Suddenly, the seventh-seeded Huskies are two wins from reaching the Final Four and becoming the talk of Seattle.
But after ignoring them all winter, you don’t know anything about this squad’s coaches or players.
We’ve got you. When the Huskies tip off vs. Kentucky tomorrow at Rupp Arena, you’ll be all caught up. From the six players in the rotation to the head coach, here is a cheat sheet for all things UW women’s basketball.
Enjoy getting to know the team.
Kelsey Plum: The Star
|Notable: Three-time all-Pac-12 selection. … Fastest player to score 2,000 points in Pac-12 history, doing so in 88 games. … Scored 45 points against Oklahoma in November of 2014, a UW record.|
This is probably the one Husky who needs no introduction, because when you’re fourth in the nation in scoring, people learn your name. Plum’s 26.3 points per game would be impressive in any context, but the nature of her buckets demands attention.
While watching film of Monday’s win against Maryland, UW coach Mike Neighbors couldn’t help but repeatedly rewind to Plum’s step-back three-pointer. Except it wasn’t the shot that he found so entertaining — it was the disbelief from the Terrapins’ bench.
The Huskies, you see, witness similar feats from Plum in practice every day. It’s not all that different from a certain Warriors point guard that has made the extraordinary routine.
No, Plum isn’t quite the female version of Stephen Curry — but when we’re talking about a player with an average frame doing incredible things, you can draw a parallel or two.
“She doesn’t have one thing about her that screams ‘I’m a basketball player!’,” Neighbors said of his 5-foot-7 junior point guard. “If she walked by people in the airport and wasn’t wearing her gear, nobody would ask her if she played ball.”
Plum’s personality is as bright as her game. She’ll talk trash with fellow UW point guard Andrew Andrews during a game of P-I-G (which she won in a best-of-three series — check out the video). She’ll tell referees that it looks as though they’ve lost weight. And Tuesday, when a television reporter beat my colleague Larry Stone to a question during a news conference, Plum remarked “too slow, Larry.”
In other words, Plum has game, Plum has jokes, and given how she’s an Academic All-American, Plum has smarts, too.
So is there anything she can’t do?
“Dance,” teammate Talia Walton said. “She thinks she can dance, but she can’t.”
Talia Walton: The Grandma
|Notable: Team’s second-leading scorer at 15.9 points per game. … Scored a career-high 33 points in the season opener vs. Santa Clara, including eight three-pointers. … Has 131 career blocks, a UW record. … With 1,748 points, she ranks sixth on UW’s all-time list.|
Hey, when you’re a fifth-year senior, sometimes you get tagged with geriatric monikers. Just know that no matter what they call her, teammates adore and appreciate Walton.
The Pac-12, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to.
Despite averaging 15.9 points and 6.6 rebounds this season, the Federal Way native did not make the All-Pac-12 first or second team. Maybe that’s why Plum believes Walton is the most undervalued player in the league.
That said, coaches who overlooked her should have voter’s remorse after Walton had 20 points and four three-pointers in Monday’s win over Maryland.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the victory marked the happiest Walton has been during her time at UW. Given how she has overcome four knee surgeries — three on her right and one on her left — you’d think no moment could surpass stunning a No. 2 seed on the road.
But Neighbors said one thing outshines any on-court achievement for Walton: swimming with dolphins during a team trip to Cancún.
Walton, it turns out, is infatuated with this particular mammal. She has dolphin tattoos on her forearms and carries around a dolphin pillow pet. You could call it an obsession, but that might undersell it.
“You know how teenage girls are with Justin Bieber?” Plum said. “That’s Talia with dolphins.”
Katie Collier: The Split Personality
|Notable: One of four UW players to start every game this season, averaging 6.1 points, 5.5 rebounds in 27.1 minutes. … Tied career high with 16 points at USC on Feb. 12. … Attended Seattle Christian and was the first McDonald’s All-American to come to UW.|
OK, if this is the first time you’ve seen Collier’s name, stop reading immediately and Google her story. As a general spurner of superlatives, I can say that it’s amazing.
She has beaten leukemia. She has overcome an ACL tear. As Neighbors said, “they should stop giving out the inspirational ESPY award until Katie graduates.”
But heartwarming as all that is, it’s also pretty well-documented. So what do teammates say about Collier now?
“She’s a Barbie doll,” Plum said of the 6-3 junior. “If we ever have a question about cosmetics, she’s the first one we go to.”
But if you think Collier is a sweet little puppy on the court, then she has you right where she wants you.
It’s no accident that she is tangled up with an opponent every other trip down the floor. It’s no coincidence that she quit volleyball to focus on basketball, which is by far the more physical sport.
“I’m a nice person off the court,” said Collier, who, in addition to averaging 6.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, dropped the word “golly” at least once during our interview. “But basketball is my alter ego.”
Chantel Osahor: The Fan Favorite
|Notable: Averaging 9.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game this season. … Has had nine double-doubles this year. … Had a 20-rebound game against Seattle U this season, only the fourth player in program history to do that.|
Plum may lead Washington in points, assists, minutes, and free-throw percentage, but Osahor is tops in standing ovations. The 6-2 center is constantly getting the crowd on its feet without ever leaving her own.
Have you ever seen her shoot? It’s an experience. Because whenever Chantel hoists one from the outside, she jumps precisely zero inches.
In fact, according to Plum, Osahor can knock it down from the opposite free throw line with both feet on the ground. That’s ridiculous. But despite her unconventional approach, Chantel leads the team in field-goal percentage (.466) and is shooting .337 on three-pointers.
Osahor is also second on the team in assists (3.32 per game) and 12th in the Pac-12. Neighbors used to add “for a post player” when praising her passing ability, but has since dropped the qualifier.
If UW makes history and reaches the Final Four, Osahor will be a critical reason why. Her holding Maryland’s Brionna Jones (15.2 ppg) to four points on 2-of-7 shooting Monday was the difference between victory and defeat.
However, if the Huskies do fall in this regional, you’ll likely find Chantel on the golf course soon. She plays at least once a week in the offseason and can drive the ball 250 yards.
Alexus Atchley: The Dream Come True
|Guard||5-9||Senior||Yorba Linda, Calif.|
|Notable: Scored 11 points, including two late three-pointers, in last week’s 65-53 victory over Penn in the first round of the NCAA tournament. … Stepped into the starting lineup when Brianna Ruiz went down with an ACL injury in January.|
After a disappointing freshman year at Colorado, Atchley transferred to UW as a walk-on. Soon enough, she earned a scholarship. Two years later, she was named a captain. And when Brianna Ruiz went down with a knee injury this season, Atchley became a starter.
Now the senior is a key cog for a team playing in the Sweet 16. Rest assured, it’s extra sweet for her.
“The whole journey that I’ve been through, and the opportunity that everyone has given me — the whole thing is a blessing,” Atchley said.
Atchley doesn’t have any notable quirks or hidden talents, but she may be the team’s most popular player.
“Everybody always wants to give Lex a ride home because she makes you feel so good about yourself when you’re with her,” Plum said. “She likes to make everyone feel happy.”
Mathilde Gilling: The Artist
|Mathilde Gilling file|
|Forward/center||6-3||Senior||Rungsted Kyst, Denmark|
|Notable: Scored all six of her points during a crucial third-quarter stretch in the second-round upset of Maryland before leaving with a knee injury. … The senior is Washington’s top player off the bench, averaging 12.5 minutes.|
Note that the above almost read “Mathilde Gilling: That Foreign Kid.”
Several years ago, the Huskies played against Gilling — a Denmark native — on a foreign tour. She made an impression, but not quite to the point where Neighbors could recall her name offhand.
So when UW was suddenly in need of a post player, Neighbors had a simple message to his staff: “Go find that foreign kid.”
Find her, they did.
With injuries to Ruiz and Khalia Lark, the Huskies’ bench is birdbath shallow. But in her sixth-man role, Gilling has provided a big lift — most notably with her six points and five rebounds Monday night.
Crazy thing is, she may be the most talented person on this team. Just check out some of her artwork at mathildegilling.com.
Last year, Gilling — whose area of expertise is “visual communications design” — actually had an art class that conflicted with the Huskies’ practice schedule. Neighbors, however, didn’t ask her to make any changes.
“I told her to go to the class,” he said. “I was like ‘you’re so good at this, you’re going to make millions of dollars one day’.”
Mike Neighbors: The Leader
|Mike Neighbors file|
|Pos.||UW record||Years at UW||Hometown|
|Notable: Guided UW to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2001. … Has taken the Huskies to two NCAA tournaments in his three seasons at the helm. … Worked for two years as an assistant at UW before being promoted.|
We can talk about his breakfast routine if you’d like. That would be Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a Diet Coke.
We could talk about his guitar skills, reading appetite, film obsession and Arkansas roots, too. We could even talk about the leather pants he promised to wear if the Huskies made it to the Sweet 16 (don’t worry, the team vetoed the motion.)
But his players just want to talk about trust.
When it comes to strategy, how many coaches will ask their teams straight up “OK, what do you guys think?” How many coaches will hand over the white board to their star player and let her draw up a play?
Neighbors, in his third year as the Huskies head coach, is two wins from the biggest stage in his sport. And he’s doing it with the smallest ego.
“My favorite thing about Neighbs is the trust he has in our team,” Collier said. “And that’s reciprocated right back to him.”
Of course, the media’s favorite thing about “Neighbs” is his 10-minute-answer-per-question average that fills up notebooks. One minute you’ll be asking him about Maryland, and the next minute he’s giving you an analogy about reeling in a desperate fish.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the leather pants, here’s the story. Sunday, Huskies assistant coach Adia Barnes wore a not-so-subtle leather outfit, which prompted to Neighbors to promise to wear pants of the same material if UW won. Well, the Huskies did win, but a postgame poll strongly discouraged him from going through with it.
Neighbors was relieved.
“Would you have gone through it if they wanted you to?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’d do anything for this team.”