As one of the nation’s most coveted women’s basketball recruits, Kelsey Plum had her college decision scrutinized again and again by her friends. By her coaches. By other recruits. By members of her own family, even.
Washington? Really? Like, in Washington state?
“ ‘Why not Tennessee? Why not Louisville?’ I had to kind of just swallow my pride and nod my head,” Plum said Tuesday, five days ahead of the biggest game the Huskies have ever played. “The first year, we didn’t even make the tournament and people were like, ‘We told you, why would you go there?’ You have to just kind of take it on the chin.”
And now, Plum said: “People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get it!’ ”
They better. The Huskies tore through the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament, claiming victories over three higher-seeded teams — including wins on the home floors of No. 2 seed Maryland and No. 3 seed Kentucky — to advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history. They are just the fourth team seeded seventh or worse to make the women’s Final Four, and they will meet No. 4 seed Syracuse in a national semifinal on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (5:30 p.m., ESPN2).
Plum insisted back in 2012, the year she committed to UW, that she knew the Huskies had the right pieces to eventually win on this stage. Others around her weren’t so sure.
Their skepticism was not without warrant. When Plum was being recruited, the Huskies hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2007. Former UW athletic director Todd Turner fired head coach June Daugherty after that season and hired Tia Jackson, whose teams in four seasons eventually compiled an overall record of just 45-75. She was fired. Her replacement, Kevin McGuff, turned the program back in the right direction with a pair of NIT appearances in 2011-12 and 2012-13, but left UW to become coach at Ohio State.
Plum decided to stick with her decision to attend Washington following the promotion of assistant Mike Neighbors to head coach. Now in his third season, with a junior Plum leading the way as one of the nation’s top players — she was named on Saturday as a WBCA All-American, the first in UW history — Neighbors has the Huskies within two victories of a national title.
Their semifinal matchup against Syracuse is a rematch of UW’s 66-62 loss to the Orange in Las Vegas on Nov. 27. The Huskies trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half of that game, using a big fourth quarter to make it close at the end. And though they beat Texas Tech the following day, Neighbors says his team was at its worst during that time.
“If we were to put a graph on the season,” Neighbors said, “the low point would be Vegas.”
Syracuse (29-7) advanced to the semifinals by defeating seventh-seeded Tennessee, 89-67, in the Elite Eight. The Orange also upended No. 1 seed South Carolina — a team that had lost only one other game this season — in the Sweet 16.
Together, Washington and Syracuse are the two most unlikely entrants in this year’s Final Four. Unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Connecticut faces No. 2 seed Oregon State in the other semifinal, a game UConn is favored to win by about 22 points. Connecticut would also be a heavy favorite in the championship game against either UW or Syracuse.
Regardless of the challenge — an unprecedented one at UW — these stakes do not seem to faze the Huskies. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering what they’ve already accomplished.
“Our confidence is ridiculous right now,” said fifth-year senior forward and Federal Way product Talia Walton, UW’s second-leading scorer. “We’re ready to play any and everybody. … We truly mean that. We are ready for any and everything.”
3 p.m.: UConn (36-0) vs. Oregon State (32-4), ESPN, 950-AM
5:30 p.m.: Washington (26-10) vs. Syracuse (29-7), ESPN2, 950-AM