Ten Schools in Ten Days: Washington Women's Basketball Preview

Oct. 27, 2005

The 2005-06 Washington women's basketball team looks to pick up right where it left off last year.

The Huskies culminated the 2004-05 season winning eight of their last 13 games, including five of the last seven. Ultimately, when the curtain went down on the year the Huskies found themselves under .500 with a 14-16 overall record. Although finishing strong, UW endured a bit of a rebuilding year being one of just seven NCAA Division I programs without a senior on the roster. But that was then. This year the building blocks have already been established and with that 'rebuilding' year behind it, Washington is ready to continue its winning and dominating ways.

UW returns 14 letterwinners, all five starters and for the first time in three years, the roster features more upperclassmen (10) than underclassmen (five). And according to head coach June Daugherty, in her 10th season at the helm of the program, this year's squad can only benefit from the cohesiveness that exists. The only new face on the team will be freshman forward Heidi McNeill from Oak Harbor, Wash.

'Having so many players return definitely gives us an edge in the team chemistry department on and off the court,' Daugherty said. 'All our student-athletes have spent a great deal of quality time together and enjoy being around each other. I believe that the off-court experience will give us a rather large leg up on last year.'

Washington's veteran leadership begins with the senior trio of team captains Kayla Burt, Nicole Castro and Kristen O'Neill. After being the elder stateswomen last year as just juniors, these three players already have the leadership qualities necessary to carry a successful team.

'I could not be more proud of the senior class,' Daugherty said. 'They are warriors that lead with passion. It is not any wonder why they were selected as our three captains. I am fortunate to have them as leaders and totally put the team in their hands.'

Burt and O'Neill were leaders on the court as well as off in 2004-05. Burt led the team in scoring (9.6 ppg), assists (2.9 apg), free-throw shooting percentage (75.8) and free-throws made (69). She ranked second on the squad in three-point field goals made (44) only behind O'Neill (46).

O'Neill was the only Husky to start all 30 games and tied for second in overall scoring with 9.5 ppg. She led all Huskies in conference games, averaging 9.9 points against Pac-10 opponents. O'Neill ranked third on the squad in assists (55), blocks (13) and three-point field goal percentage (34.8).

Last season Burt primarily played the No. 2 guard position, while O'Neill traded off at the point guard and forward spots.

While racking up impressive statistical figures, even more incredible was what both players accomplished after missing a substantial time away from the basketball court. Both Burt and O'Neill made amazing comebacks in 2004-05. O'Neill came back from mono and missing the 2003-04 season with a stress fracture. Burt came back after suffering cardiac arrest on New Year's Eve, 2002 and missing one and a half seasons.

Burt's triumphant comeback earned national recognition as she was named the 2005 V Foundation Comeback Player of the Year. She was also nominated for the 2005 ESPY Award for 'Best Comeback.'

Both Burt and O'Neill should see the benefit from having a full year of playing and off-season training under their belts, as should the Huskies.

'The return of Kayla and Kristen was nothing short of amazing,' Daugherty said. 'Given the fact that they were away from the game for over a year, they did outstanding. This will be the first year that they have had an off-season to fully prepare for their senior season. There is no doubt in my mind with the combination of their talent, passion and work ethic, they will be ready for a huge senior year.'

Castro, a very athletic guard, came off the bench in 24 games last season and will look to increase her playing time in 2005-06. A strong leader off the court, Castro's efforts in community service and in the classroom are second to none as the Australian native was named the Tyee Sports Council Award winner and the 101 Scholar Athlete Award winner when team honors were handed out at the end of last year.

Burt and O'Neill, as well as additional returning starters Jill Bell, Emily Florence and Cameo Hicks, will be the driving force behind Washington's signature up-tempo, aggressive and explosive play. The Huskies made it a point last year to utilize more of a motion offense and put an emphasis on aggressive defense. Washington fans will see more of the same this year.

'We have athletic, versatile players who are very talented with good speed and quickness,' Daugherty said.'They are defensively strong and solid, playing several defensive schemes. Our team will feature a fast-break offensive tempo with players that like to run. Our motion offense set will utilize four players on the perimeter and one player inside which makes it a difficult offense to scout and defend.'

Washington's speed and versatility can largely be attributed to juniors Bell and Hicks, both named to the 2005 All-Pac-10 honorable mention team. Bell, a junior forward, is quite possibly the most athletic player on the team. A rebounding force both on the offensive and defensive glass, Bell led the team with 5.2 boards per game and 31 blocks (the fourth most by a Husky in a single season).

Hicks is an all-around complete player, tying for second on the team with O'Neill with 9.5 points per game. She shot a team-high 42.4 percent from the field (111-for-262) and a team-high 48.5 percent from beyond the arc (16-for-33). She was second on the team in rebounding (4.6 rpg) and fourth in assists (48).

'Cameo and Jill are impact players who are multi-talented,' Daugherty said. 'Watch for them to play both inside and out with dominance. Athletically, I believe they will perform at an even higher level this year, given their experience, abilities and work ethic.'

Bell and Hicks are among a talented group of seven juniors who look to make the most out of their increased experience.

Forward Breanne Watson played all 30 games last year, and started seven. This past summer she played with the Canadian Developmental National Team at the World University Games held in Turkey, where she continued to hone her skills. Watson averaged 8.2 points and 4.1 rebounds as a sophomore, shooting 39.1 percent from the field (92-for-235).

Watson, Bell and fellow junior forward Maggie O'Hara will patrol the post for Washington. O'Hara saw significant improvement in her sophomore campaign, starting eight games of 30 played. She averaged 3.5 points and 3.2 rebounds, to go along with a 75.6 free-throw shooting percentage and 15 blocks.

Rounding out Washington's junior class are guards Cheri Craddock, Erica Schelly and Angie Jones. Craddock, who started two games last year, was the Huskies' sharpshooter from beyond the arc. She was second on the team with a 35.2 three-point shooting percentage and 31 of her 49 field goals made were three-pointers.

Schelly and Jones are both redshirt-juniors. Schelly came off the bench in 23 games last season and shot an impressive 87.5 percent clip from the free-throw line. Jones only saw action in nine games but also made the most of her trips to the charity stripe, shooting 75 percent from the line.

This year's sophomore class will be led by Florence and Dominique Banks, who as freshmen made significant impacts in their first season.

Florence, UW's starting point guard in 27 of 30 games, was the Huskies' sparkplug on defense. Florence finished with a team-high 50 steals and ended the year ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in steals. She was one of only two freshmen to rank in the top-10, the other being Pac-10 Player and Freshman of the Year, Candice Wiggins (fourth with 85 steals).

Banks proved she had staying power early on, starting 13 games at the No. 2 guard position, a spot she shared with Burt during the season. A Pac-10 All-Freshman honorable mention selection, Banks averaged 7.3 points and 3.0 rebounds, to go along with 44 assists and 20 steals.

'Given the talent and experience that both Emily and Dominique have, I believe their roles will certainly increase, as well as their consistency,' Daugherty said. 'Both are committed workers who want to improve every time they step on the court. Their competitive desire will drive this team daily.'

In addition to Florence and Banks, forward Andrea Plouffe and guard Stefanie Clark complete the sophomore class. Plouffe saw her minutes increase as the season went on last year, coming off the bench in 22 games. She should help Watson, Bell and O'Hara at the post. Clark came off the bench in 14 games and looks to increase her contributions in her second season.

Completing the 15-player roster is the one freshman, Heidi McNeill. The 6-3 forward from Oak Harbor, Wash., should give an added boost to the Huskies' frontline. McNeill comes to Washington with a decorated resume. She was a two-time Street & Smith Honorable Mention All-American at Oak Harbor High School and a two-time second-team all-state selection. She led OHHS to its first 4A state tournament berths during her freshman and sophomore campaigns. McNeill finished her career as her school's all-time leading scorer (male or female) with 1,643 career points. She was also a stellar volleyball player, earning all-state team honors in 2004.

'Heidi brings great size and athletic ability to our front line,' Daugherty said. 'She is a skilled player, and her aggressive scoring mentality and toughness on the glass should contribute to our success.'

With the building blocks already in place, awaiting the Huskies is another formidable schedule come November. Washington will face nine teams that participated in the 2005 NCAA Tournament including none other than the national champion Baylor Lady Bears.

'We have a philosophy at the UW to play the best and to be the best,' Daugherty said. 'We have a `bring it on' attitude when we schedule. Our players are ready and excited about our competitive schedule.'

In addition to Baylor, Washington will face the likes of '05 NCAA tourney competitors Florida State, Utah, Rice, Stanford, Arizona State, USC, Oregon and Arizona.

Washington opens the season with a challenging slate, playing five games in the first 10 days. The Huskies begin their schedule on the road, traveling to the South to play at Alabama (Nov. 18) and Florida State (Nov. 20).

The Huskies will return to the friendly confines of Bank of America Arena for their home opener on Thanksgiving Eve with Utah (Nov. 23). UW continues at home hosting the Husky Classic Nov. 26-27. Washington will face San Diego in the first round, while Rice will face Pennsylvania (Nov. 26). The consolation and championship games take place on Nov. 27.

From there it's back on the road to face perhaps their toughest test of the season. Washington will counter defending NCAA Champion Baylor in Waco, Texas, Dec. 2, followed by a match up with Texas A&M in College Station, Dec. 4.

The Huskies return home to host four-straight, their longest homestand of the year. Washington entertains Michigan (Dec. 9) and Eastern Washington (Dec. 12) before opening the Pac-10 slate hosting California (Dec. 20) and Stanford (Dec. 22).

As always, the Pac-10 Conference will provide a challenging list of contests culminated by the Pac-10 Tournament, held March 3-6, in San Jose, Calif.

The season can't get started soon enough for Daugherty and the Huskies. For a team with a wealth of talent and experience, picking up where they left off last March should land them back in postseason play.

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