University of Washington

Washington and Oregon State new faces in Final Four

From Left, Washington’s Chantel Osahor, coach Mike Neighbors and Kelsey Plum hug in the closing moments of Sunday’s regional final against Stanford in Lexington, Ky. Washington won, 85-76.
From Left, Washington’s Chantel Osahor, coach Mike Neighbors and Kelsey Plum hug in the closing moments of Sunday’s regional final against Stanford in Lexington, Ky. Washington won, 85-76. The Associated Press

For three decades, any chatter about women’s basketball on the West Coast usually has started and ended with Stanford.

While the Cardinal remain among the top programs in the country — as evidenced by its run to the Elite Eight — it’s Oregon State and Washington that are headed to the Final Four in Indianapolis and providing validation that women’s basketball in the West is more than just what is happening at Stanford.

“We’re all seeing how good the Pac-12 is. It surprises me a bit how surprised I think people are across the country,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. “You listen to just the general narrative of the Pac-12 and people are surprised, surprised Washington could beat Maryland. We’re not. We’ve played against them.”

The runs by Oregon State and Washington to the Final Four mark the latest evolution of West Coast women’s basketball.

USC was one of the dominant programs in the country when the women’s Final Four started in 1982, and thanks in large part to Cheryl Miller the Trojans won consecutive titles in 1983-84.

But no other team in the Pac-10 at the time — now Pac-12 — emerged as a powerhouse program other than Stanford. Nearly every school in the conference took a turn being good for a year or two, but no one else could put together a team and an NCAA run good enough to reach the Final Four.

Between USC’s loss in the title game in 1986 and the Beavers and Huskies reaching the national semifinals this year, the only other Pac-12 school to advance to the Final Four other than Stanford was California in 2013. The only other West Coast school to reach the Final Four was Long Beach State in 1987 and 1988.

“I think for a number of years people were trying to get everybody to listen that the Pac-12 was really good, but they could never really prove it because there was always one team in the Final Four and that was Stanford. … Even though people were saying it, you couldn’t really back it up,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said this week.

“Now we’re saying it all year long, we’ve been saying it since Christmas and everybody is looking at us like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ We’ve heard this before. But now you get three teams in the Elite Eight, four in the Sweet 16 and two in the Final Four. That is validation.”

Oregon State and Washington will bring stories of redemption to Indianapolis.

Rueck inherited a shattered program when he returned to his alma mater in 2010 and most of his current roster went 10-21 in the 2012-13 season. But they followed up with 24 and 27 wins in the following two seasons and this year earned a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title, won the Pac-12 tournament and upset Baylor to reach the Final Four.

Washington’s run as a No. 7 seed is among the more unlikely in NCAA Tournament history, and included wins on the home floors of Maryland and Kentucky just to reach the regional final against Stanford. The Huskies had not won two games against the Cardinal in the same season since 1987 before beating them in the Pac-12 tournament and again for a Final Four berth.

Neighbors says he hopes the runs by Oregon State and Washington provide proof that top players don’t have to leave the West Coast to find success.

Washington’s roster includes six in-state players, five from California, one from Arizona and one international. Oregon State is equally West-centric with 11 of its 13 players coming from Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona or British Columbia.

“It validates these players staying home. These kids could have left and gone to the East Coast and Midwest and all the programs that had been going there in the past,” Neighbors said.

“Them making their decision to stay on the West Coast and stay close to home, I hope sends a clear message to all these players out here that you can stay close to home. You can get a great education, you can play in the same time zone, and you don’t have to leave to get to this stage.”

Women’s

Final Four

SUNDAY

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

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