When Mike Neighbors recalled the most important weekend for Washington’s women’s basketball program in 15 years, he remembered the scene on the floor as the Huskies stunned Maryland on its home court, followed by the celebration in the locker room.
But the most impressive thing Neighbors saw in the process of leading Washington to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001?
“Getting a police escort on the (Interstate) 495 at rush hour around Baltimore and Washington D.C.,” Neighbors said. “It was amazing to watch the Maryland State Police manipulate traffic all the way from Bethesda to College Park.”
These are celebratory times for the Huskies (24-10) after pulling off arguably the biggest upset in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament by knocking out a Maryland squad that was trying for a third straight Final Four and had lost at home only six times since its new arena opened in 2002.
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Led by do-everything point guard Kelsey Plum, the confident seventh-seeded Huskies advanced to the Lexington Regional semifinals where they will face another home team, taking on No. 3 seed Kentucky on Friday. For all the attention Plum has received as one of the premier scorers in the country — which she did again with 32 points against the Terrapins — the win over Maryland was validation that the Huskies deserve to be back in the conversation among the better programs on the West Coast.
“We stayed humble and faithful to the plan and what coach was talking about. We continued to chip away,” Plum said after the win. “This team is very resilient.”
The Huskies are handling the days leading up to the game against Kentucky (25-7) in a somewhat unconventional manner. Instead of staying on the East Coast, Washington chartered back across the country to Seattle on Tuesday, spent one night at home and chartered to Lexington on Wednesday.
Neighbors said he talked to a number of coaches who have been in similar situations in the past, and the prevailing sentiment was to go home if possible. Then he brought it up to his players.
“When I brought it up to the team and talked to them about the pros and the cons to it they all wanted to come home,” he said. “So I thought that was more important than any advice anyone could give me, was to listen to my team, and that’s what we decided to do.”
The chance to sit around and do nothing for five-plus hours on a plane fit with how Washington has approached the latter part of the season. Because of a relatively short bench, Neighbors’ belief is that his team should “play really hard and rest really hard.”
The Huskies aren’t the deepest of teams and are facing the prospect of being without guard Mathilde Gilling. Gilling, one of six players used in the Maryland win, injured her knee late in that game. Her status is uncertain.
What is known is the big task the Huskies face in Kentucky. The Wildcats will have a huge advantage of not having to travel for this game and will be backed by their fans.
Kentucky owns a 6-5 record at Rupp Arena during coach Matthew Mitchell’s nine-year coaching tenure. The Wildcats have won five of their past six games at Rupp, including victories over Duke and Louisville this season.
Mitchell acknowledged the benefits of playing nearby while also noting his team lost at home to Dayton in last year’s tournament, and No. 2 seeds Maryland and Arizona State fell on their home floors last week.
“I would love to go to a Final Four,” Mitchell said. “That’s been a goal of our program and a dream of all of ours, and we believe we’re going to do it one day, and we hope it’s this year. But it won’t be because the Rupp Arena floor jumps up and makes any baskets. The building won’t get it done for us. The players will.”
Washington’s accustomed to winning big games on the road. The Huskies are 8-4 in true road games and 4-2 at neutral sites this season, which has enabled them to reach the regional semifinals for the first time since 2001.
“We’ve been playing a lot of close games all year on the road,” Plum said. “The Pac-12 conference has really helped us. There have been some really tough teams that we’ve had to face on the road this year, so I think that’s prepared us for this game.”