Talia Walton played exactly one game in her first season at Washington. It was against Houston. She scored two points and grabbed one rebound. But something didn’t feel right.
She could have kept playing, could have struggled through the pain in her knee and contributed in some way as a true freshman on a UW women’s basketball team that ultimately finished with a 20-14 record and a trip to the WNIT quarterfinals.
Instead, she chose to sit the rest of the 2011-12 season.
“I just didn’t feel like myself,” said the former Federal Way High School star. “I didn’t really want to waste a year. I met with Coach (Kevin) McGuff at the time and decided it would be best for me to just sit out.”
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That decision, four-plus years later, has helped yield the greatest team accomplishment in program history: Walton, now a fifth-year senior, is the Huskies’ second-leading scorer, and one of the primary reasons why Washington will make its first Final Four appearance Sunday in Indianapolis.
By any definition, the Huskies are on a hell of a run. Not only are they about to play in the national semifinals as a No. 7 seed — only three teams seeded seventh or worse have ever made the women’s Final Four, evidence of the gap between the game’s elite programs and everybody else — but they got there by defeating two higher-seeded teams on their home courts.
First came the mega-upset, a 74-65 stunner over No. 2 seed Maryland in College Park. Then they beat No. 3 seed Kentucky, 85-72, at Rupp Arena in Lexington. By then, the Huskies’ 85-76 win over No. 4 seed Stanford in the Elite Eight seemed preordained.
And they couldn’t have done any of it without Walton. She dropped 20 points on Maryland and 30 points on Kentucky, firing 3-pointers and swishing turnaround jumpers, performances superior to her already-solid season average of 16.2 points per game. Text messages and tweets froze her phone. Teachers and former teammates from Federal Way reached out with well wishes.
And just think: if Walton hadn’t redshirted, she would have left the program last season along with fellow classmates Jazmine Davis and Aminah Williams. That would have been fine, she said. But now …
“This,” Walton said, “is going to be something that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
She spent that first year working out and rehabilitating an injury that occurred during her sophomore year at Federal Way. That’s when she tore the meniscus in her knee, and though she had it surgically repaired, she said she didn’t go through the proper rehab process to return the knee to full strength.
So she took care of it. She lost some weight. She focused on schoolwork and returned to practice with the scout team, simulating the skills of each UW opponent. It was good for her.
“It helped me to not really have a cap to my game,” Walton said. “I could just kind of do whatever and develop that way. Just to be able to sit out a year, watch, be able to learn the game at this level. I gained a lot from that redshirt year.”
And the Huskies gained a savvy veteran scorer to help them play deeper into the NCAA Tournament than ever before.
Star guard Kelsey Plum said she’d never considered before how different the Huskies might look if Walton hadn’t redshirted her first year, but remarked on Tuesday: “Thank God she’s here. We would not be here if she wasn’t here, I know that for a fact.”
Her teammates call Walton “Grandma,” Plum said, because she acts as something of a mother hen, making sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to wear, what time they’re supposed to be wherever they’re supposed to be.
“She just puts everything together,” Plum said.
Walton said her parents couldn’t make it to Lexington last week, but she spent two hours with her dad Monday night making sure they booked the correct flights to Indianapolis. They got it sorted out: Her parents leave Seattle on Friday morning, in time to accompany Walton to the various Final Four events that allow family members to tag along. That was important to her.
“I didn’t want to be the only one without my mom and dad there,” Walton said, “so I was determined last night to get them the right ticket, and we were able to get it together.”
The team leaves Thursday morning on a chartered flight. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is scheduled to address the crowd at a 9 a.m. sendoff outside Husky Stadium. Once they arrive in Indianapolis, Walton said, she plans to enjoy “every last second of it.”
“This is one heck of a way to go out my senior year,” Walton said, “and so I’m probably going to be the one jaw-dropped, eyes wide. (Coach Mike Neighbors) is going to have to tell me to close my mouth before a fly gets in there or something.”
Fine with him.
“I can’t wait to see this kid walking around with her mouth open and her cell phone out, taking pictures,” Neighbors said.
They will be memories five years in the making.
3 p.m.: UConn (36-0) vs. Oregon State (32-4), ESPN
5:30 p.m.: Washington (26-10) vs. Syracuse (29-7), ESPN2