SAN FRANCISCO — Six months ago, Haley Van Dyke was in the NCAA transfer portal determined to leave a crumbling Washington women’s basketball team while Nancy Mulkey entered the WNBA draft anticipating a long-awaited professional career.
On Tuesday afternoon at the Pac-12 women’s basketball media day, they sat in the sunshine on a Bay Area rooftop connecting the dots that led to an unexpected pairing that’s sure to decide the immediate future of the Washington women’s basketball team that’s rebuilding under first-year coach Tina Langley.
“I was in the portal, then Tina got hired,” said Van Dyke, who garnered all-Pac-12 honors last season after leading Washington in points per game (12.0), steals (44), minutes per game (31.9) and was second in rebounds per game (5.8). “I was talking to Missy (Peterson) about it and Missy was like you have to talk to her. Give her one chance, and I promise you’re going to love her.
“Tina called me that night. We talked on the phone, and I was like it’s obvious that I’m going to stay because she’s amazing. She’s one of the best people that I ever met. I already had my mind made up that I was leaving, but I heard what she wanted and what she wanted to do with me and what she wanted to do with the team and her philosophy. I just loved it. And I love the way she coaches and how consistent she is every day.”
Convincing Van Dyke to stay stemmed the flow of UW defections, which included starters sophomore guard Tameiya Sadler and junior center Quay Miller, who transferred to Colorado, and senior forward Khayla Rooks, who left for UNLV.
Langley not only persuaded Van Dyke to return, but she also convinced Mulkey, a 6-foot-9 senior to forgo her professional pursuits and transfer to Washington.
“It was a tough decision to withdraw from the draft,” Mulkey said. “But having the option to take my last year, I feel like if I didn’t take it, I’d have regrets. So I didn’t want to have any regrets. This is the best opportunity and decision for me.
“I have a chance to compete in the Pac-12 at the highest level. I’m not worried about it. I’m excited about it. I can’t wait.”
Mulkey averaged 15.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks last season and she became Rice’s all-time leader in field goal percentage (.551) and block shots per game (3.5) and ranks second in total blocks (266).
Before transferring to Washington for her fifth collegiate season, Mulkey was considered a late-round draft prospect. She began her collegiate career at Oklahoma in 2016 and spent four years at Rice, including the 2017-18 season, when she was ineligible after transferring.
“I was ready (for the draft) and all prepared for that before this situation presented itself,” Mulkey said. “Like I said, it’s definitely an honor to be playing in the Pac-12. Great teams, great competition, great players and great coaches. I’m looking forward to playing against some of the best players in college basketball.
“I’ve been in this offense for a while so it might be a little easier for me than everybody else. But every day the team is getting better and better. Players are getting better. I’m really happy with how things are turning out and seeing the confidence in my teammates. When plays work out to see that joy, it makes me happy.”
After five practices, the learning curve is steep for a team that returns just seven players who played last season and brings in three freshmen (Marisa Davis, Avery VanSickle and Olivia Pollerd) in a 2021 class that’s ranked 16th nationally by espnW. Jess Finney enrolled midseason and averaged 1.2 points in 14 games.
Washington also added sophomore forward Lauren Schwartz, who started the past two seasons at Rice, and junior guard Trinity Oliver, an experienced veteran who played the previous four seasons at Baylor.
“I’m really proud of the commitment that they’re making toward growing,” Langley said. “So many young women have a tendency to see everything single thing as a failure or a success. We talked a lot the first week that winning isn’t actually a goal, it’s an outcome. And the goal is actually the process.
“It’s committing to the growth that we want to have. I think they started to understand that concept. You can see at practice they’re willing to get out there and try something they haven’t tried before. And I really like the way they’re supporting each other.”
Langley said it’s too early to commit to a starting lineup considering several players are returning to practice, including Peterson who missed last season due to a knee injury in training camp.
“My personal preference is that we take this month and we really work hard to develop everyone in the system,” Langley said. “And then in time you can see from an efficiency standpoint and chemistry stand point how you play. We really haven’t played 5 on 5 very much because people are still returning.”
A top priority is for Van Dyke and Mulkey to build on-court chemistry before the Nov. 12 season opener against San Diego.
“I love playing with Nancy,” Van Dyke said. “It’s so easy. She has really good hands. She can catch the ball really well so it’s easy to feed her in the post. Me being a scorer I think I’ll attract some attention away from her, so in that sense I think we’ll work well because we’ll take pressure off each other.”
How quickly UW adapts to Langley’s schemes and the effectiveness of Mulkey and Van Dyke’s partnership will likely determine if Washington surpasses expectations.
The Huskies are tied for 10th in the Pac-12 preseason coaches’ poll.
“A good season is always going to mean growth,” Langley said. “If each of us commits to being the best we can be individually, then we’ll be the best we can collectively. If we can help young women develop habits of excellence I think you’ll see growth in every person and we’ll reach our full potential.”