Chantel Osahor is a University of Washington political science major with a cult following.
“I can go to a restaurant or walk through a mall,” she said the other day, “and someone will ask: ‘Oh, my God, are you the girl who shoots without jumping?’ It happens a lot.”
A 6-foot-2 center, Osahor’s most obvious basketball skill is the tenacity and intuition she uses to collect rebounds. Osahor averages 16.9 of them per game, which ranks No. 1 in the nation and is a primary reason the Huskies earned the privilege of playing host for their NCAA Tournament opener against Montana State on Saturday night.
But strangers don’t approach Osahor because of her rebounding prowess. They approach the senior because she’s mastered a wonderfully kooky set shot that went out of style around the time string nets replaced peach baskets. Standing still behind the three-point line, with knees unbent, Osahor releases the shot as if tossing a dart.
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The ball doesn’t always arrive on target, but it falls through often enough for Osahor to average 15.4 points a game. And while the Huskies are built around guard Kelsey Plum, the NCAA’s all-time career scoring leader, nothing is more certain to bring Hec Edmundson Pavilion fans to their feet than Osahor’s accurately aimed set shot.
“What’s funny is people who’ve seen Chantel all these years, when they watch her shoot, they still smile,” said UW head coach Mike Neighbors. “You can see her shoot 500 times, but you still get that little moment. There’s something about her. She’s got such magnetism.”
The magnetism is powerful enough that Neighbors can recall precisely where he was, and what he was doing, the first time he saw Osahor.
“Chicago, Illinois,” he said. “I was in the wrong gym.”
Neighbors, who was an assistant on the staff of then-Huskies coach Kevin McGuff, had traveled to Chicago to scout a summer-league high school tournament held at several sites throughout the metropolitan area. Neighbors got incorrect information about the location of the game he wanted to see.
“I looked at the schedule,” he said, “and I realized I couldn’t get to the proper gym in time to watch any of that game. So I decided to stay.”
Neighbors ended up staying for a contest between teams from New Jersey and Arizona. The Jersey girls didn’t profile as potential UW recruits, but Arizona was Pac-12 country. Paging through a tournament booklet, Neighbors noticed that the Arizona team’s roster was stocked with players already committed to big-time programs.
One was bound for the University of Connecticut, another for Louisville, another for Michigan. And then there was Chantel Osahor, from Saint Mary’s High School in Phoenix. Her name rang no bell — no college had offered her a scholarship — which intrigued Neighbors.
“I started looking for her,” he said, “but I couldn’t find her. She was on the bench, not warming up. The kid who doesn’t warm up ends up starting.
“She got the jump ball. Next time down in transition, the first thing I see her do is throw a no-look, behind-the-back pass. I thought maybe she accidentally did that. Then she backpedaled down the court, got behind the zone, and pulled in a one-handed rebound.”
The no-look, behind-the-back pass and one-handed rebound were teasers.
“The third or fourth trip down,” Neighbors continued, “Chantel had it at the top of the key, and I swear I thought she was reversing the ball. Then she looked at the girl guarding her and shot the ball. I thought, she didn’t just shoot that, did she? Because she was looking over to the side and the next thing you know, the ball is going in.”
Neighbors was sold, but sealing the deal was a subsequent possession, when Osahor backpedaled down the court before hustling to a retrieve a loose ball in the corner.
Neighbors returned to Seattle and offered McGuff a scouting report on the uniquely versatile talent he discovered in the wrong gym.
“She really fits how we play,” Neighbors told McGuff, who gave the OK to offer Osahor a scholarship without having seen her in person.
Neighbors finally met Osahor on her recruiting visit to Washington.
“He took me in right away, took my mom in right away, my whole family,” she said. “It was an easy transition from high school to here.”
Osahor had been in contact with a handful of schools — Virginia Tech and Harvard among them — but there was something about the Montlake campus that felt just right.
McGuff, the head coach who was recruiting by instinct, “fell in love with her the same way we all have,” Neighbors told a group of reporters. “I don’t know how long it took ya’ll to fall in love her.
“You can’t help but appreciate her game, how hard she plays, how much better she makes everybody on the floor. That’s what was important to me: Her team was better because she was out there. I think she was the reason all of those kids got the scholarships they got.”