Pac-12 Feature: Huskies Building on Season Successes
The scoring. The rebounding. The winning. The record-setting performances.
It’s all good, says Mike Neighbors.
Hard to find a lemon in this batch of lemonade. Washington is one of the country’s hottest teams, at the top of the standings of the nation’s toughest women’s basketball conference and preparing for what is going to be a difficult weekend at home.
The Huskies will take on a Cal team looking for momentum and a signature win to bolster their NCAA hopes. And then there is Sunday’s showdown with Stanford, also tied at the top of the Pac-12 standings at 7-1 and the team that Washington beat last March in the Elite Eight to punch a ticket to the program’s first-ever Final Four. This will be the only time the Huskies face the Bay Area schools this season, and could play a big role in ultimately determining the conference champion.
But that’s jumping too far ahead.
“These are two teams with NCAA resumes,” Neighbors said. “I think we already know a lot about our team, but after this week, we will certainly see where we stack up. And when you stack up in our league, you will stack up nationally.”
A late-January homestand against a pair of traditional national powers is a great barometer. But it is not defining.
“We don’t want to be peaking yet. We want that to happen in about another month and a half,” Neighbors said.
But there is no denying that the Huskies are being driven by the individual performances of stars Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor. Plum is closing in on the NCAA scoring title and playing at a consistently high level that borders on ridiculous.
Osahor, meanwhile, is filling the stat sheet, including last week’s record 30-rebound effort against Washington State.
“I call those video game numbers,” Neighbors said. “She’s in great shape and she’s giving us big minutes and doing what she does.”
Plum, Neighbors said, is showing the kind of singular focus he’s never seen in any athlete he’s ever been around. He said his senior guard is seamlessly juggling the demands that have come with her extraordinary season.
“I’ve not been around any person, any generation, who has the ability to singularly focus like she does,” Neighbors said. “She’s been great with the media, great with fans, great with autograph seekers, providing sound bites for us, but when it comes time for practice, or shoot-around or games, that’s who she is. But it doesn’t change how remarkable it is.”
Arizona changing culture
Arizona coach Adia Barnes knows things are getting better by measuring “the touches”.
“Every day, we chart touches, we give points for high fives, chest bumps, hugs,” Barnes said. “We do that every day. When we first started, we were in the hundreds. Now we are up to 400 or 500 a day.”
The culture in the Wildcats program, which hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2005, is changing. And it’s about more than wins and losses.
Arizona is 11-8 overall and 2-6 in conference play heading into this weekend’s road trip to Los Angeles.
But Barnes feels good about where her program is headed. Sunday’s 71-60 loss at Cal was actually a step in the right direction, said Barnes, the former Pac-12 Player of the Year.
“We were disappointed in that game,” Barnes said. “That’s a sign things are getting better. Kids are smiling, communicating, talking. We are actually playing like a team now. When somebody gets run over taking a charge, everybody runs over to pick her up. Those are things we did not do before.”
Barnes, who returned to her alma mater last spring to take her first head coaching job, said that makes her proud.
“It took a lot of work to make those things happen,” said Barnes, who is still the Wildcats’ all-tim leading scorer. “We reinforce team every day.”
The wins, Barnes knows, will come. She knows her team doesn’t have the size of many of the teams in the conference and they don’t have experience winning consistently.
“But, in that Cal game, they did everything I asked of them. They played well. I want them to taste winning, what it looks like to win and what it takes to make it happen.”
Barnes said she was never intimidated to begin her head coaching career in the toughest season in Pac-12 history.
“I’m competitive. I’ve been an underdog my whole career, that prepared me,” Barnes said. “People told me I couldn’t play in the Pac-10 and I did it. They said I couldn’t play in the post in college, and I did it. They said you can’t play in the pros and I made a career for 13 years. I knew it was going to be a challenge and I wanted it.”
Barnes said there is no pressure on her team. Seniors LaBrittney Jones and Malena Washington are having career-best seasons and accounting for 43 percent of the Wildcats’ offense. And young players are getting an opportunity to lay a foundation for the future.
“We will do what it takes every day. We can’t control that we don’t have a 6-4 center. Yet. But I know we are going to get those kids, I know people are going to want to play here,” Barnes said. “Our goal is to play in the postseason, and there are things we have to do to reach that goal.”
Buffs looking to bounce back
Colorado had one of the best starts in the country – jumping out to 10-0 - found itself in the national rankings and was one of the country’s biggest surprises.
But once the Pac-12 season started, and Colorado has struggled to maintain that momentum. Wednesday night’s win over Utah was their second win in conference play – ending a five-game losing streak - and a great game for sophomore Kennedy Leonard, who ranks among the conferences leaders in points, assists and steals.
“We needed it,” Buffs coach J.R. Payne said after the win. “We can’t hang everything on this win, but we needed it. We need to use this as momentum.”
Colorado needs that too. The Buffs will face Utah again on Sunday and then an injury-riddled Washington State team on February 3 before a difficult stretch of four games that will include matchups against the league’s top three teams – Washington, Stanford and Oregon State.
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.