UW has invited fans to a send-off party at 9 a.m. Thursday ahead of the Huskies' departure for the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Interest in the Washington women’s basketball team has increased tenfold, if measured only by the crowd of media members gathered in an interview room at Alaska Airlines Arena on Tuesday afternoon.
For the typical regular-season game, two reporters cover the UW women. About 20 were on hand for a news conference Tuesday, two days before the Huskies depart for Indianapolis for the program’s first trip to the Final Four.
“This is our first press conference at home, ever,” UW coach Mike Neighbors said.
Casual Seattle sports fans seem to be jumping on board at a similar rate.
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On Sunday, hours after the Huskies won the Lexington Regional championship, about 100 supporters showed up around 9:45 p.m. Sunday to greet the team bus as it arrived back on the UW campus. The team’s chartered plane from Kentucky had to make an unscheduled stop to refuel in Omaha, and the team arrived on campus about 45 minutes later than expected. Still, the reception was more than the Huskies had expected.
“When we got off that bus — honestly, I was like, ‘It’s cold, it’s late, we’re late. There might be a handful of (UW) staff,’ ” UW senior Talia Walton. “No, the show-out was tremendous, and we really appreciate it.”
On Monday, as she walked around campus headed toward her first day of spring-term classes, Walton said she randomly got high-fives from fellow students.
“I think a lot of people are starting to fall in love with this team because they relate to somebody on the team,” UW star guard Kelsey Plum said. “Whether someone in their family had cancer — like Katie (Collier). Or somebody walked-on and didn’t really get a shot at first and kept persevering — like ‘Lex’ (senior guard Alexus Atchley). Or somebody went through some injuries and just kind of battled — like ‘T’ (Talia Walton).
“They’ve just kind of taken heart around the country and people are starting to see, I don’t have to be a 6-5, 200-pound athletic player that can dunk to succeed. And I think people are starting to realize that, and I think that’s why we’ve been fun to watch.”
On Thursday, the Huskies have invited fans to attend a 9 a.m. send-off party next to the west entrance of Husky Stadium. Neighbors, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and UW interim athletic director Jennifer Cohen are scheduled to address the crowd. The team buses will depart at 9:45.
Once in Indianapolis, the Huskies have a handful of events to attend Thursday and Friday, then a news conference on Saturday and, of course, their national semifinal game against Syracuse at 5:30 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2). Among other things, there’s an autograph session and a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in their first two days there.
“When your list of responsibilities includes show up to have your ring sized, for your Final Four ring, that’s a pretty cool thing,” said Neighbors, who celebrated his 47th birthday Tuesday.
• The hot topic surrounding women’s basketball this week has centered on the dominance of Connecticut and whether that’s a good thing for the sport. Neighbors, for one, thinks it is.
“What they’re doing right now is incredibly hard,” Neighbors said, “and the fact that we’re not celebrating it like John Wooden’s success was celebrated back in the ‘60s — we’re calling him the greatest coach to ever live; the greatest thing to ever happen. … I don’t think it’s terrible for the game. I think we should be celebrating it.”
Back in the Final Four again, UConn will play Pac-12 champion Oregon State at 3 p.m. Sunday in the first national semifinal in Indianapolis.
UW plays Syracuse in the second national semifinal at 5:30 p.m. The winners will meet Tuesday in the national championship game.
And if his Huskies get a chance to play the dreaded UConn Huskies in the title game?
“I know this: If we get there against those guys, these guys won’t be scared. They won’t be,” Neighbors said. “I know they won’t be. They’ll have the right amount of respect for it.”
• Plum was one of 10 players selected Tuesday to the John R. Wooden All-America team, the first UW women’s basketball player to make that team.
Plum is third nationally in scoring at 26.3 points per game, behind Wagner’s Jasmine Nwajei (29.0) and Minnesota’s Rachel Banham (28.6). With 943 points this season, Plum needs 25 more to break the Pac-12 season scoring record (Chiney Ogwumike, 967).
Also selected to the Wooden team: Banham, Nina Davis (Baylor), Moriah Jefferson (Connecticut), Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State), Tiffany Mitchell (South Carolina), Breanna Stewart (Connecticut), Morgan Tuck (Connecticut), Brianna Turner (Notre Dame) and A’ja Wilson (South Carolina).