Kelsey Plum remembers the Maryland players laughing. The No. 2-seed Terrapins looked at Washington like a high-school team that sneaked past security and onto the court.
The Huskies weren’t a group of physical specimens. They had a center who shot three-pointers without leaving her feet. To the Terps, the Huskies weren’t a threat to knock them out in the second round of the NCAA tournament — they were the headline act in the upcoming comedy hour.
“I don’t even think they watched film on us,” said Plum, said. “They were like ‘How the heck did this team get in the tournament?’ They stopped warming up, turned around and were laughing.”
Comedy quickly turned to tragedy for the Terrapins, as seventh-seeded Washington thumped ’em 74-65 on their home court. Plum had 32 points, and that set-shooting center, Chantel Osahor, grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds.
At the time, it seemed like a signature win that would cap one of the best seasons the program has ever had. In reality, it was the start of one of the most pleasant surprises in Seattle sports history.
Four years ago this week, the Huskies were in Indianapolis competing in the women’s Final Four. They had gone from relative obscurity to the Puget Sound area’s most talked about team in a week and a half.
Before the NCAA tournament started, Nate Silver’s prediction website fivethirtyeight.com gave Washington a 0.2% chance of making it to the national semifinals. But UW’s coach at the time, Mike Neighbors, who now coaches the women at Arkansas, said he thinks that number would have been a whole lot higher if Silver could have spent five minutes with the players.
“Literally from the second they got in the same room together, there was a cool vibe,” Neighbors said, referencing the team’s first meeting before the season started. “You could never put your finger on what it was, but you could tell something cool was about to happen even that far back.”
One of the primary motivational tweaks that Neighbors, who now coaches at the University of Arkansas, made was to remove all goal-setting for the season. The year before, the team’s main objective was to reach the NCAA tournament, but when it did, it languished in a first-round loss to Miami.
So the Huskies threw out tangible aims. They lined up top-25 nonconference opponents such as Syracuse and Oklahoma. They managed 11 wins in the brutal Pac-12, earned a seven seed, and then — showtime.
There is no doubt Washington earned a favorable draw. Osahor went so far as to say “you could use the word luck” when it came to their Big Dance foes, who all had styles that suited the Huskies’ strengths. But to beat No. 2 Maryland by nine points at Maryland? And then to beat No. 3 Kentucky by 13 at Kentucky in the Sweet 16? They were thorough stompings. The Huskies were more Cinderella’s stepmother than they were Cinderella.
Some might say Washington got a break when fourth-seeded Stanford knocked out top-seeded Notre Dame in their Sweet 16 game. But Plum was actually rooting for Notre Dame because Washington had just beaten Stanford three weeks earlier in the Pac-12 tournament. She feared legendary coach Tara VanDerveer would make an adjustment, and the Huskies would be in trouble.
You don’t say this often — but Kelsey was way off.
The Huskies scored the first 12 points of the game, led 22-7 after the first quarter and coasted to the win. Production came from everywhere, as Talia Walton dropped 12 points (after 30 the game before), Plum put up 26, Kelli Kingma hit two three-pointers off the bench and Osahor tallied 24 points and 18 rebounds en route to earning the regional’s most outstanding player honor.
“It was numbing. I just think a lot of kids dream of stuff like that,” said Osahor, who serves as an assistant coach under Neighbors at Arkansas. “It’s funny that this is coming up now, because every three months or so I’ll log into Synergy and watch those games.”
By the time the Huskies came back to Seattle they were celebrities. ESPN featured Osahor’s set shot on “Sports Science,” and Chantel would regularly get people asking her “Are you the girl who shoots without jumping?”
It was wild, but not completely unexpected to those on the team.
Neighbors remembers a game in which he gave a halftime speech to his team about five minutes after it had walked into the locker room. Turns out, the players had already highlighted every point he had made before Neighbors opened his mouth.
“I’m telling you, you could sense it all year long,” Neighbors said. “It’s hard to recapture that.”
The Huskies lost to Syracuse by 21 points in their Final Four matchup (during which Walton hit her first eight three-pointers), but they’d essentially won their championship at that point. Nobody realistically thought they had a shot at taking down unbeaten UConn in the finals.
No, what started with the Huskies getting laughed at ended with an achievement that will put a perpetual smile on their faces.
“It’s one of the greatest experiences in my life,” Plum said. “I’ll never forget it.”