Mike Neighbors admits he isn’t always this quick on the draw, and don’t you know the feeling? When confronted with an insult, few among us are capable of retorting with immediate wit, instead left to ponder the situation later and only then formulate and lament what would have been a wicked comeback.
This time, there would be no such regrets.
Neighbors, the gregarious women’s basketball coach at the University of Washington, watched his team savage the No. 6-seed Oklahoma Sooners in a second-round NCAA tournament game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Monday night. The Huskies won, 108-82, with Kelsey Plum setting more records, Chantel Osahor grabbing more rebounds, the entire game a party and the fourth quarter a coronation.
But after Neighbors removed UW’s starters from the game and inserted backups in their place, a few ticks of the clock the only thing separating the Huskies from their second consecutive Sweet 16, he said he received a verbal taunt from an Oklahoma fan that he simply could not abide.
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“I looked down,” Neighbors said, “and a fan challenged me to come down there.”
“For the first time in my life,” Neighbors said, “it hit me what I needed to say.
“I said, ‘hey, I can’t come down there right now, but I am going to be in Oklahoma City.’ He didn’t like that very much, understandably.”
On this night, even the coach couldn’t miss.
Oklahoma City, of course, will be the site of No. 3-seed Washington’s next challenge, a regional semifinal Friday against No. 2 seed Mississippi State at Chesapeake Energy Arena. After their Final Four run of a year ago, the Huskies have qualified for the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
They made it there with a victory as convincing as could have been rationally expected. In her final home game, Plum, the NCAA’s career scoring leader, dropped 38 points with 11 assists for her first career double-double. Oh, and she also surpassed Jackie Stiles for the NCAA women’s single-season scoring record, though she was likely more interested in the substance of her next meal than she was in discussing yet another individual achievement.
This night was instead about the Huskies treating one, final home crowd — 7,579 attended this 6 p.m. Monday tipoff — to one, final reminder of what this program has become, and what it might accomplish in the coming week.
Plum was magnificent, of course, but four UW players cracked double-figures in the first half, the Huskies (29-5) made 18-of-30 from 3-point range, shot 57.1 percent from the field, outscored the Sooners 30-14 in a decisive third quarter and spent the fourth quarter biding their time until the final ovation.
Junior guard Natalie Romeo benefited from several drive-and-kick ventures by Plum, netting 20 points thanks mostly to six made 3-pointers. Osahor scored 16 points and clutched 15 rebounds. Freshman guard Aarion McDonald scored 13 of her 18 points in the first quarter.
“If we can get (Romeo) and Ari doing stuff that they did tonight,” Osahor said, “we’re unbeatable.”
Their lead was already 74-61 before they closed the third quarter with 10 unanswered points in the final three minutes, Plum adding the last five via a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws. Game over.
“I thought about it a lot,” Plum said of her final home game. “Visualized it, thought about it, dreamed it, whatever you could call it. There was no way I was losing my last game on this home court.”
Everything, it seemed, found the net. Heather Corral banked in a 3-pointer. Osahor bricked a 3-point attempt so badly that the ball died on the back iron and fell through the hoop. Plum said they knew the Sooners sometimes rotated too much, so they used that to their advantage, finding shooters in corners and moving the ball a step too quick for OU’s varying defensive looks.
Afterward, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale remarked: “I’m not sure who would have beaten them tonight.”
Not Oklahoma (23-10). The Sooners matched UW’s hot shooting for a half, trailing only 54-47 at intermission. They made 8-for-16 from long range in that period, jumpers by Gioya Carter and Chelsea Dungee keeping them in the game.
But Plum scored the first six points of the third quarter, foul trouble limited Oklahoma’s ability to respond and the Huskies continued to make nearly everything, finishing just six points shy of the school record for most in a game.
Neighbors subbed seniors Plum, Osahor and Katie Collier from the game with 1:19 showing on the clock, the crowd giving final thanks to a group that has already led the program to unprecedented success – and, of course, includes the greatest basketball player in the school’s history. Plum reveled in all of these Hec Ed lasts – last postgame celebration, last time hopping the press table to do a postgame interview, last time walking off the floor to cheers and photographs and more photographs.
“For those kids to leave Hec Ed with a win, in a fashion like that against a program that’s been to 18 straight NCAA tournaments,” Neighbors said, “I’m really at a loss for words, which I very rarely am.”
He had said enough already.