Pac-12 Feature: A Raucous Semifinal To Be
For once, in this tournament in Seattle, Washington wanted to make a deep run.
To this point, the hometown team hasn’t made it past their second game, sending their fans home early and leaving KeyArena to the out-of-towners.
But Washington added to an historic day in the Pac-12 Tournament late Friday night when they knocked off fourth-seeded Stanford 73-65.
Washington will be back on Saturday night at KeyArena for what should be a raucous affair against No. 1 seed Oregon State, who eliminated eighth-seeded USC.
On the face, a No. 5 seed beating a No. 4 isn’t an upset of monumental proportion. But Stanford has owned this tournament since it started back in 2002. Until Friday night, the Cardinal had never failed to reach the semifinals. In fact, Stanford has only missed one championship game, and that was back in 2014, when USC defeated Oregon State to take the title.
But the Huskies did what they came to do, beating the Cardinal with a strong shooting night (46.6 percent from the floor) and frustrating the Stanford offense with a persistent, effective zone that flummoxed the Cardinal for long stretches.
The Huskies got big scoring nights from veterans Kelsey Plum (29 pts) and Talia Walton (19 pts), Plum setting the school scoring record in the process.
Most importantly, they withstood a furious Stanford rally late in the game, the Cardinal shaving a 16-point deficit down to two points in the final three minutes before Talia Walton hit a game-sealing 3-pointer with 23 seconds to go.
“In my mind, I said make it. But everybody says make it when they shoot,” Walton said. “And I just knew at that time, if Kelsey was going to give it to me at that point in the shot clock at that time, then I've got to give her that assist.”
And then the Huskies celebrated their first trip to the Pac-12 semifinals since they went in back to back seasons in 2003 and 2004, Plum leaping into the arms of her teammates with her arms raised.
Huskies coach Mike Neighbors believes his team is playing as well as anyone in the country, having won four of their last five games heading into the tournament.
But Washington largely has been left out of the national conversation, save for a fleeting appearance in the national rankings early in February.
“We’ve been the fifth Beatle,” Neighbors said, nodding to Plum and Walton sitting next to him. “I’ll explain who the Beatles are to them later.
“There’s been four teams talked about, that have been ranked and we popped in and popped out. We’ve had a special vibe all year long and it’s starting to become noticeable to everybody else now.”
Neighbors joked that he’s had some interesting ideas before the game lately. Friday’s was a doozy. He was going to leave his starting lineup in as long as possible. Four of the Huskies five starters – Plum, Walton, Katie Collier and Alexus Atchley – played all 40 minutes. Post Chantel Osahor played 36 because of foul trouble.
“I have this feeling that our group is so tied together right now and locked in, and I wasn't going to get in their way tonight,” Neighbors said. “They know what to do. These guys, there's a lot of coaches on that floor, and I was not going to get in their way. And if I sub, I get in their way, and I wasn't about to do that to this team.
“I felt like this game against Stanford in the grand scheme of things held so much importance that we were going to go all in. So we went for it, and when it started working, now you can't change, you know, you can't change it. We just kept sticking with it, and I think they would have tackled me if I had tried to do something.”
Plum, who was 10-for-22 from the floor and dished off five assists, took over the school’s scoring lead in less than three seasons.
Asked what it means to her, Plum simply said, “Nothing.”
“We will talk about it when that last number is hung,” Neighbors said.
But Plum ranked this win as “amazing.”
“For me, it’s such a blessing and an amazing feeling,” Plum said. “Obviously I played against Stanford a lot in my career here. And like Coach said, this is only my second win against them. So this is the best time, in my opinion, to get that win, and to do it in the fashion that we did with the girls I got to do it with is so amazing.”
Osahor played the role of unsung hero, pulling down 16 rebounds – giving her 34 in two tournament games.
“She is the best tough rebounder there is,” Neighbors said. “If we need a tough rebound, I want her under the basket.”
The Huskies will face top-seeded Oregon State in a late game that will be their third game in three days.
“I told them before, that if you win this one with energy and effort, you can play on adrenaline tomorrow,” Neighbors said.
Oregon State has brought a large fan base to Seattle, hoping to root the Beavers to a tournament title. Washington fans filled the stands for the late game.
Neighbors said he’s willing to get on social media to convince the fans of Seattle to come and fill the gym on Saturday night, to give his team the home-court advantage they have finally earned. “Seattle needs to come out and fill this place up. Let’s fill up this bowl,” Neighbors said. After all, the home team is still playing.
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