The Washington Huskies opted to return to Seattle to enjoy the moment after their stunning NCAA upset of Maryland. Now the UW women head to Kentucky with renewed confidence and determination.
They could have flown directly from the Washington, D.C., area to Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, and started preparation for their Sweet 16 showdown on Friday with much less hassle. And much more rest.
That would have been the logistically logical thing for the Washington women’s basketball team to do, anyway. But coach Mike Neighbors wanted his players to savor their stunning upset of Maryland with their own people in Seattle, to reap all the psychic rewards of a victory that turned all eyes on their program.
Which is why the Huskies found themselves getting a hero’s welcome on campus Tuesday afternoon. And why they’ll be making another cross-country flight Wednesday morning to Lexington, where another underdog’s challenge against third-seeded Kentucky awaits.
“To get to see the people that have been with us, to get balloons and flowers and all that stuff — it’s really important to experience that part of it,’’ Neighbors said. “It’s part of the student-athlete experience, and then we’ll head to Lexington not being satisfied whatsoever.”
That’s where the Huskies stand right now, after knocking off Maryland — a delicate mix of giddiness and determination. They know full well it was one of the biggest wins in school history, and that’s something to fully savor. The Terrapins were a No. 2 seed with a No. 1’s portfolio — two straight Final Four appearances, the country’s top rebounding team, four seniors, playing on their home court.
Maybe what the Huskies accomplished didn’t get the national attention of some of the crazy games in the men’s tournament. But if you looked at the 1,100 messages Neighbors received via text, email or Twitter, you knew how big it was in their world. In the waning seconds of Washington’s 74-65 victory, Neighbors had instructed his team not to storm the court, but rather, “walk down and shake their hands like we meant to do this.”
Only later, in the solitude of their locker room, did the Huskies cut loose. Yet there was also a sense that, as Neighbors put it, “It never felt to me like an upset. It never felt to me like we weren’t supposed to win.”
And that’s what is driving the seventh-seeded Huskies to believe that they can keep this run going, even though they’re playing another touted team on its home court — and even though they may be forced to go with what is essentially a five-woman rotation.
They still feel like they’re the most energetic team in the tournament. They’ve been battle-tested in a Pac-12 conference that still has four teams alive. But more important, they’ve forged a team bond over Neighbors’ three years at the helm that is a powerful force in its own right. It’s no wonder that their leading scorer, Kelsey Plum, said that the biggest reason they beat Maryland is that everyone on the team believed to their core they were going to do just that.
“I think it comes from a confidence we’ve built through this season, and the season prior, and just the chemistry we’ve built,’’ Plum said. “When you get into battles every night with teams in the Pac-12, you build a camaraderie you can’t fake or even try to mimic with someone else. We just knew if we had each other‘s back and we were tougher than Maryland, we were going to win this game.”
To ease the pressure, Neighbors hit them with a fishing analogy during a timeout when the Huskies led 60-49 with about four minutes to play. The Arkansas native told them that when you’re reeling in a big fish, its biggest fight comes the closer it gets to the boat. He told them to get ready, because Maryland was going to start fighting with a vengeance.
They did, firing up threes, but the Huskies withstood whatever the Terrapins threw at them. Of course, Plum had seen Northern Iowa’s men blow a 12-point lead to Texas A&M within the last minute, just like everyone else, so she wouldn’t let her teammates let down, not for a second.
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“The whole game, it was, ‘Don’t you dare celebrate yet. We are not losing this game. We earned this,’ ’’ Plum said. “We kept plugging that away in everyone’s head throughout the game. It felt like the last two minutes of the game took 20. When it was over, we did celebrate. It’s just a cool feeling, right? Especially when no one outside our locker room gave one second look at us. I think that’s the way we like it. It was just fun.”
The Huskies want to keep the fun going as long as possible. Neighbors knows full well that this is a special group he inherited in his first head-coaching job, and he heeds their input.
“I’m the first to tell you, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing that first year,’’ he said. “These guys helped shape this and mold this into what they wanted it to look like. I’m not stupid enough not to listen to these guys.”
Now the Huskies have forced their way into the white noise of tournament basketball. It helped that Monday’s game didn’t have to compete with the men’s tournament, giving Washington its own niche in the spotlight — and a sleepless night for Neighbors as he re-lived the victory.
“Obviously, we all talk about March Madness,’’ Neighbors said. “It’s one of the best times of the year. To be included in that for any amount of time is great for us.”
And to soak it up at home — even for a scant 18 hours — made it that much greater.