When you look at the path that BR-13 Washington took to get to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for Sunday’s Final Four semifinal showdown against BR-11 Syracuse, it becomes obvious they didn't get here by accident. They fought tooth and nail, road warriors all the way.
“We've scored 85 points in our last two games and 74 in pretty hostile environments — at Maryland, at Kentucky, and then against Stanford [in Lexington],” said Washington head coach Mike Neighbors.[divider]
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Syracuse – UConn – Oregon State[divider]
The Huskies will face a daunting rematch on Sunday night when they hope to avenge a 66-62 loss to Syracuse in the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas on Nov. 27.
“They were really, really good then and they're even better now,” Neighbors said. “At that point in time that was our toughest opponent that we had faced. They have a really, really unique style of play and, since that was around Thanksgiving, we didn't have access to our men's practice team. So we had a really hard time trying to simulate the pressure that they put on you, the stress that they place on you for 40 minutes.”
Despite the loss, Washington didn’t throw in the towel against the Orange.
“They really dominated us,” Neighbors said. “The score looks close, but if you look a little deeper than that, they were up on us 19, and we had to really fight and claw back to even get that thing even close down the stretch. We hit some shots late, but they really dominated us. The score is not near as close as what the game was.”
The Huskies, as they’ve shown in beating Maryland and Kentucky on the road in consecutive rounds of the tournament, are nothing if not resilient. And very few players are the epitome of that resilience than senior guard Alexus Atchley, who took over as a starter after a season-ending injury to Brianna Ruiz.
“She came to our program as a walk-on,” Neighbors said. “She started at the University of Colorado as a walk-on. Some circumstances there didn't afford her the opportunity to continue to even be a walk-on there. So we lucked into her. Her sister ran track at our university here and knew that we were looking for walk-ons. And Alexus came up. I met her. I'd never even really seen her play basketball. I talked to a couple of people. But I just liked the kid.”
After a tour of the campus, Atchley enrolled at UW, joining the team as a walk-on before earning a scholarship the following year.
“I knew from that little golf cart ride that she was somebody you wanted on your team,” Neighbors said.
Courtesy of UW Athletics
Atchley’s hard word didn’t go unnoticed by her teammates or the coaching staff.
“She learned what we do, not only what we do, but why we do it that first year,” Neighbors said. “She came in. She did everything that was asked of her. She came in with that attitude and developed. She just kept getting better and better and better. Coach Castro would come up after workouts and say, wow, Alexus is really coming on, she's really getting this. Once she learned why we do things, you couple that with her being a great teammate, and her confidence grows.”
And after that first season in Seattle, the next step of Atchley’s career as a Husky came to fruition.
“We were at our end-of-the-year banquet, and she had received an award that was voted on by her team,” Neighbors said. “As she was coming up, getting her award, we said we have one other announcement. We just want to let Lex know that from this point on she's a scholarshipped member of our team from now on. It was a really cool moment around her teammates. They all rallied around her. And then ever since she's just skyrocketed.”
It’s the hidden gems who are often overlooked that are the building blocks of the Washington program.
“We build our program around skill development rather than trying to just outrecruit current players on our roster year after year,” Neighbors said. “We recruit kids and we develop kids.”
That’s not to say there aren’t playmakers on the roster who’ve also been a big part of the Huskies’ success.
Junior Kelsey Plum is the nation’s third leading scorer (26.2 ppg), but she’s also taken on a leadership role on-the-court, including some rather unconventional ways.
“In one particular game, Kelsey had been talking about how a defense was kind of shading to her side and playing the ball screens,” Neighbors said. “We were trying to have the conversation while there was a live ball and it just simply wasn't working out very good during a live ball. So during the next timeout I had the board in my hand she just grabbed it from me and started trying to draw up what she was explaining.”
Yet, in the era of cameras being everywhere at sporting events, the Pac-12 Network saw it slightly differently.
“As Johnny on the Spot as [the Pac-12 Network] always is, they caught it and edited it into” the live broadcast,” Neighbors said. “Then she kind of gave me a little atta boy on the way out that got a lot of publicity, which I think that little 15-second clip certainly encapsulates how I treat all of our players.”
It hasn’t just been Plum who has paced Washington into Indianapolis. And Neighbors tends to pay attention to what his players are seeing on the court.
“Chantel Osahor got us out of defense on Stanford,” Neighbors said. “She was saying ‘Coach, we have enough legs, I think we can guard them in man. Let's go.’ And Talia Walton said during one timeout ‘I've got a mismatch, this kid can't hold me.’ I sometimes have to get it interpreted because I don't know what hold me means or this kid — their language about I got a mismatch. But if I don't listen to those kids who are out there doing it and have been doing it, then I think I'm losing my greatest resource and I'm also — I trust them. I mean, they've earned my trust. I hope I've earned their trust. We don't care who's right. We just want to get it right. And that's kind of been a thing that we've said all along.”
And, doing it right could give the Huskies the right to cut down the nets in Indianapolis on Tuesday night.