The Huskies lose stars Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor, but the cabinet isn't bare. Guards Aarion McDonald and Natalie Romeo are poised to step into leadership roles.
OKLAHOMA CITY — A few weeks before Friday’s 75-64 loss to Mississippi State ended the Washington women’s basketball season in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16, Huskies coach Mike Neighbors pondered about a future without Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor.
The thought of losing two transformational players – the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and UW’s all-time leading rebounder, respectively – as well as a two-year starter Katie Collier might be cause for concern.
However, Neighbors has prepped for a future without a senior class that’s won 98 games and has been responsible for three NCAA tournament appearances, two Sweet 16 trips and one Final Four.
“I know exactly what we’re going to do,” Neighbors said. “We work on it in practice everyday. You can ask the kids. We have drills where Kelsey, Chantel and Katie are not even on the floor. And I sleep fine at night.
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“We’ll be different. All I ask anybody that’s thinking about those things is go back when we lost Talia (Walton), Aminah (Williams) and Jaz (Davis) and everybody was like what are you going to do now?”
Davis and Williams were the leaders of a 2014-15 team that had a 23-10 record and snapped UW’s eight-year NCAA tournament drought. After a NCAA tournament first round defeat in 2015, the Huskies lost Davis, a four-year starting guard who held UW’s all-time scoring record at the time, and Williams, a three-year starting forward who graduated on top of the school’s career rebounds list.
The questions then were similar to the questions now: “How can the Huskies keep this going?”
In 2015-16, Walton was the second leading scorer, who averaged 16.5 points and sank a team-high 86 three-pointers, on a UW squad that made its first ever trip to the Final Four.
This season, Nebraska transfer Natalie Romeo stepped into Walton’s role and averaged 9.8 points while canning 94 three-pointers.
Neighbors fully understands what Plum, Osahor and Collier meant to the program. The trio accounted for 62.6 percent of UW’s scoring and 59 percent of the rebounding during a record-breaking season in which the Huskies (29-5) won more games than ever before.
However, rather than hit the reset button, Neighbors expects to reload with role players assuming more responsibilities.
“Next year it will be Deja (Strother) doing this,” he said. “And Mai-Loni (Henson) doing this. And Hannah Johnson doing this. Will we have some different looks? There’s no question about that. And I do think about it when we have our recruiting meetings. That’s the only time I really try to dig into this. We get those recruiting boards out to make sure that the legacy is built upon and not become a three-year or four-year wonder. We want to be one of those groups that continues to counted.
“There’s no question that people will pick us low next year. I understand the inertia of that thing. But I also know that Oregon State was picked fifth and they’re (No. 1) in our league. So once you get your culture and once you get the right kids, which we have the right locker room. I sleep just fine at night.”
Freshman guard Aarion McDonald, who averaged 9.8 points, will be Washington’s leading returning scorer. She started 21 of 28 games.
Romeo figures to step into a starring role next season. The 5-foot-7 junior guard started 33 of 35 games and was fourth on UW in scoring.
Senior forward Heather Corral, who missed the 2015-16 and 2014-15 seasons due to injuries, plans to petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt and hopes to return next season. This season the three-point specialist shot 43.6 percent behind the arc – a team high – and averaged 5.2 points and 18.1 minutes while starting 12 of 28 games.
And Johnson seems poised to step into Collier’s role. The 6-1 sophomore forward averaged 3.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 16.5 minutes this season.
The quartet of McDonald, Romeo, Corral and Johnson represented 29.2 percent of Washington’s scoring this season and figures to be the foundation for the immediate future.
Strother, a 6-5 sophomore center who was a McDonald’s All-American at Inglemoor High, should compete for a starting job. Henson, a 6-1 freshman forward, displayed promise early and averaged 5.8 points against nonconference teams.
The Huskies expect redshirt junior forward Brianna Ruiz to return next season after sitting out 2016-17 due to a knee injury. Before she was sidelined, Ruiz started 43 of 49 games and averages 4.9 points during her career.
Junior guard Kelli Kingma, who started the first two games and suffered a hand injury that forced her to miss most of the season, should compete for minutes in the backcourt along with freshman Amber Melgoza.
Washington’s newcomers include 5-6 guard Kierra Collier, who enrolled at UW in January and didn’t play while recovering from a leg injury. The Huskies also received a verbal commitment from 6-1 forward Khayla Rooks, who is the daughter of former NBA player Sean Rooks.
Meanwhile, Plum will travel to the Final Four this week in Dallas where she is one of four finalists for the James A. Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s most outstanding women’s college basketball player. Plum is also a finalists for the Nancy Lierberman Award and the Dawn Staley Award – both recognizes the nation’s top guard.
Plum will also attend the ESPN College Basketball Awards Show on April 7 where she’s a finalists for the John R. Wooden Award.
After touring the awards banquet, Plum is expected to attend the April 13 WNBA draft. She’s projected to be among the top two overall picks. Several mock drafts also have Osahor being selected in the first round.
“We hopefully left a legacy here that will be continued,” said Collier, who plans to pursue a career in real estate. “That’s the most important thing. As well as, we just had fun. It’s been a great ride. It’s been a lot of different ups and downs. But it’s been great.”