On March 27, 2016, the University of Washington Huskies women's basketball team reaches the semifinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, becoming the first team in state history to make the women's Final Four. The Huskies do so by defeating longtime Pac-12 Conference rival Stanford in the championship game of the tournament's Lexington Regional in Lexington, Kentucky. The regional championship is the last in an odds-defying string of victories. Unranked at the end of the regular season, in the NCAA tournament the Huskies upset three of the nation's top 13 teams, including Stanford, by an average of 10 points each to advance farther than any other team in the 42-year history of UW women's basketball. Although the Huskies will lose their semifinal matchup against Syracuse a week later, they have made state sports history by reaching the Final Four, an achievement matched by no other women's team, and only three men's teams, from Washington.
The Huskies and their fans could hardly have expected such an outcome. Although Coach Mike Neighbors' (b. 1969) team had an All-American in high-scoring junior guard Kelsey Plum (b. 1994), Washington finished the regular season in fifth place in the Pac-12 Conference and out of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings. When the 64 teams were picked for the NCAA tournament, the Huskies were designated a No. 7 seed -- i.e. seventh-best in their 16-team region. No seventh seed had made the Final Four since Minnesota did it in 2004. In the 34 years since the NCAA women's tournament began, only one unranked team (Arkansas in 1998) had managed to reach the Final Four. In other words, Washington faced a serious uphill battle.
Huge Hurdle at Maryland
The Huskies overcame a slow start to win their tournament opener at Landover Park, Maryland, dispatching 10th-seeded Pennsylvania 65-53. Plum led the winners with 24 points and seven assists, and senior forward Talia Walton (b. 1992) added 18 points. But then things figured to get difficult. The Huskies' next opponent was Maryland, two-time Big Ten Conference champion and the region's No. 2 seed. The Terrapins had advanced to the Final Four each of the previous two years and finished the 2015-2016 season ranked fifth in the nation. Adding to the challenge facing the Huskies, the game would be played on Maryland's home court.
Less-experienced Washington pulled off a stunning upset, winning 74-65. Plum scored 32 points and Walton added 20, with junior center Chantel Osahor contributing 15 rebounds. Swarming on defense, the Huskies held Brionna Jones, Maryland's star center, to a season-low four points.
The Terrapins, winners of 31 of their 34 previous games, were dumbfounded. The 24-10 Huskies were jubilant, bounding around the court after the final buzzer with their cheerleaders and pep band. They were going to the Sweet Sixteen (the regional semifinals) for the first time in 15 years.
"I think it will sink in a little bit longer after it's over," Neighbors said. "We'll look back on it and I think we'll understand the magnitude of it, because not too many 2-seeds don't advance to the Sweet 16 on the women's side of the bracket. And I think that will start to hit us whenever our phones stop (buzzing)" ("UW Women Stun Maryland ...").
On to Lexington
Even though they had to be back in the Eastern time zone just three days later, the Huskies flew home to Seattle. Neighbors explained that he wanted to let his players share their triumph with friends and fans on campus. Unspoken was that they might not have another reason to celebrate. One loss and you're out of the tournament. And once again the Huskies were facing a heavily favored team on its home court.
The opponent for that March 25 regional semifinal game was the region's No. 3 seed, 12th-ranked Kentucky. The site was Rupp Arena in Lexington. The crowd of 8,509 was mostly wearing Wildcat blue. None of that seemed to matter. Washington dominated, building a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter before winning 85-72. Walton, who played high-school basketball in Federal Way, had one of the best games of her career, scoring 30 points. Osahor had 19 points, 17 rebounds, and five assists. Plum started the game cold but finished with 23 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.
"I thought our group today was about as good as we've played," Neighbors said, "and I think we're peaking at the right time" ("UW Women Move on to Elite 8").
Having reached the tournament's Elite Eight for just the third time in school history, Washington faced Pac-12 rival Stanford in the Lexington regional championship game on Sunday, March 27. Stanford, the region's No. 4 seed, had eliminated top-seeded Notre Dame to advance to the Elite Eight, and had dominated Washington for most the 36 years that Tara VanDerveer (b. 1953) had been its coach. But the Huskies had beaten the 13th-ranked Cardinal 73-65 on March 3 in the conference tournament. Playing fast and fearless, they were confident they could do it again.
Right they were. Washington charged to a 12-0 lead in the opening minutes, withstood a barrage of Stanford three-pointers that cut the lead to 67-63 in the fourth quarter, and held on for an 85-76 victory that earned the Huskies their first trip to the Final Four. As Plum and Walton had done in the Huskies' previous two upsets, Osahor emerged as the star. The junior center scored a career-high 24 points and grabbed 18 rebounds; she was named the region's Most Valuable Player. Plum scored a game-high 26 points and added eight assists. VanDerveer said:
"Osahor was really the difference ... They have a very skillful team. Kelsey Plum is an All-American, flat out, period. There is no player that we played on any other team all year that was harder to guard than her" ("Super Dawgs").
The Huskies flew back to Seattle as Lexington Region champs, barely needing an airplane. They were met by about 100 supporters on campus, and four days later got a sendoff worthy of celebrities when they left for Indianapolis, site of the Final Four.
The two national semifinal games were played on April 3 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse before a crowd of 15,227. Washington played in the second game. In the first, another Pac-12 team, Oregon State -- which had defeated Washington by two points in the conference semifinals en route to winning the Pac-12 tournament -- faced off against powerhouse Connecticut, aka UConn, the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship, as it had the previous three years and 10 times overall. The UConn Huskies (Washington and Connecticut share the same team nickname) walloped Oregon State 80-51 and waited to see who they would face in the title game.
Washington's opponent in the second national semifinal was Syracuse, winner of the Sioux Falls Region as a No. 4 seed. The Orange had four players averaging more than 10 points a game, led by guards Alexis Peterson (16.1) and Brianna Butler (13.6). Starting for the Huskies were Plum (26.2, third in the nation), Walton (16.2), Osahor (10.3), senior guard Alexus Atchley (5.1), and junior forward Katie Collier (6.0).
The Huskies knew what to expect. Coach Quentin Hillsman's team was known for forcing turnovers and for taking and making three-point shots. Washington had played Syracuse on November 27, 2015, in a Las Vegas tournament and lost 66-62. Of course, in sweeping through their region, the Huskies were playing better than they had four months earlier. But so was Syracuse. The Orange had knocked off No. 1 seed South Carolina en route to winning their region.
Syracuse came out shooting on offense and swarming on defense. Meanwhile, Washington was missing its shots or losing the ball before it could take a shot. The Huskies committed 18 turnovers, more than twice the number they averaged in winning their first four tournament games. They were outrebounded 46-28. Syracuse outscored Washington in every quarter, and won 80-59. All that kept the game from being more one-sided was brilliant shooting by Walton. She hit her first eight three-pointers, breaking the Final Four record by two, and finished with a game-high 29 points. Plum managed only 17, nine below her season average. It was Washington's most lopsided loss of the season.
"Their pressure is very good," said Plum, who was hounded by two defenders whenever she brought the ball past midcourt. "They did a great job tonight, and I didn't do a very good job of handling that pressure" ("Off the Mark ...").
Two days later, mighty UConn beat Syracuse 82-51 to capture an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship.
A Season to Remember
Despite their loss, the Huskies knew they had done something special. The only other times the UW women's team came close to the Final Four were in 1990, when the No. 1 seed Huskies had a 26-2 record but lost to Auburn in the regional finals, and in 2001, when No. 6 seed Washington reached the regional finals in Spokane but lost to Southwest Missouri led by Jackie Stiles (b. 1978), NCAA Division I's all-time leading scorer.
Since the inaugural NCAA women's tournament in 1982, only three other teams had reached the Final Four with 10 losses. Washington's final record was 26-11, tied for second-most wins in school history, and included those improbable three straight regional victories over higher seeds. Plum broke the school career-scoring record and became the first Husky to be named a Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-American. She said:
"This is kind of a fairy tale, you know ... You see these movies where the underdog wins and all that, and that's basically what this has been. ... This is definitely something that I will remember for the rest of my life" ("Off the Mark ...").
Before the UW women in 2016, the only teams from Washington to make the Final Four were men's --Washington State College led by Paul Lindemann (1918-1990) in 1941, Washington led by Bob Houbregs (1932-2014) in 1953, and Seattle University led by Elgin Baylor (b. 1934) in 1958. Of those three, only Seattle U reached the title game. The Chieftains (since renamed the Redhawks) lost to Kentucky 84-72.