The Washington Huskies’ unexpected run to the NCAA Women’s Final Four seems to have come out of nowhere.
Or maybe if we searched hard enough through our memories, we’d see it was rooted back in the early Title IX days when legislation enhanced athletic opportunities for women.
Because once again it’s the achievement of a women’s team that is highlighting competitive developments for the Huskies.
When the Huskies take on Syracuse in a national semifinal at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, it will be the first Final Four appearance for UW since the men’s team got there in 1953.
Add that to the softball team’s national title in 2009 and the volleyball team’s national championship in 2005, and the biggest team success has been on the women’s side since the football team’s glory days of the early 1990s.
Coach Mike Neighbors got his team to the tournament last season, but was ousted in the first round. So you had to squint really hard to see this one coming.
The Huskies finished an unimposing fifth in the Pac-12 this season (11-7), good enough for a No. 7 seed.
But once they got in, they defied their seeding, radically exceeded most expectations, and rolled to four wins, including the last three impressively over Maryland, Kentucky and Stanford.
It all seems a triumph of compounding momentum and confidence. But underneath those short-term influences was a solid foundation of roster infrastructure — a stable staff that constructed a team of perfectly meshing complementary pieces.
I’ve been late to catch up to this team’s success, sure, but even if you’re not a regular consumer of women’s basketball, these Huskies — talented, competitive as heck, and versatile — are guaranteed entertainment.
The run they’ve been on prompts two questions: 1) How did this team lose 10 games this season? 2) Are they as close at they seem to keeping the streak alive with a win over Syracuse, which would position them for a long-shot chance at a national title against heavily favored UConn?
The Huskies’ versatility should be the key. Their best players defy labels such as scorer, rebounder, ball-handler. Kelsey Plum runs the offense but scores 26.2 points a game, third best in the country. Talia Walton does everything well, and Chantel Osahor is a basketball species unto herself.
Plum already is the school’s all-time leading scorer, Walton had 30 points against Kentucky, and Osahor killed Stanford with 24 points and 18 rebounds.
Osahor is a master of power and positioning on the boards but also can score off the dribble-drive and step outside with accuracy on an unconventional 3-point set-shot.
Her flat-footed, low-trajectory release results in a 36-percent success rate. The motion is so repeatable, perhaps, because there’s so few moving parts, like a catapult.
But it strikes opponents like a dagger, especially those who fail to close hard on such a physical post player roaming outside the arc.
Playing so hard, and with such obvious joy, it seems that Osahor is still in the process of surprising herself as she discovers her varied skills.
The trio of Plum, Walton and Osahor will challenge Syracuse’s defense, with Osahor, particularly, creating difficult matchups.
Syracuse is a small favorite over the Huskies in the betting line, while UConn, going for its fourth straight NCAA title, is expected to have a runaway win over Oregon State in the other semifinal.
Some contend that UConn’s dominance has been bad for women’s basketball. But it seems as if UW and Oregon State, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in their school’s histories, provides evidence to the contrary.
They seem proof of the increasing breadth in the quality and competitiveness of non-traditional national powerhouse programs.
Encouraging for the Huskies is the fact that this club isn’t built for a short run of contention, as Walton is the only senior starter.
Plum and Osahor and others return, meaning they might be even more fun — and competitive — in the future.