Familiarity breeds respect for Washington, Stanford

Breakdown of Lexington Region upsets (2:10)

ESPN's Debbie Antonelli and Dave Pasch discuss how Washington upset Kentucky and Stanford took down Notre Dame. (2:10)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There are rarely many easy points against Stanford, even when there are many games in which to try and get them against the Cardinal. Maybe especially, in that case.

Washington All-American Kelsey Plum scored more points the past two seasons than almost any player in the country. Some of those came against Stanford, including 29 virtuoso points on 10-of-22 shooting when Washington beat Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament earlier this month, its second win in the past 20 games in the series.

Yet Plum's 35 percent shooting in five previous games against Stanford, and the modest number of trips to the free throw line in that span by a player who gets there more than anyone in Division I, told their own story.

"You've got to be smarter," Plum said of playing Stanford. "Knowing that they have some real size inside, good athletes who are not going to foul you, you have to be a little bit more deceptive and creative in the lane. You've just got to make shots. Stanford is a team that's going to make a lot of shots, and they're going to make you earn it. You're going to have to hit tough shots.

"It's a very fun game, but yeah, I don't think I'm going to shoot 10 free throws tomorrow, to be honest."

Right along with Notre Dame and Kentucky, the element of surprise was eliminated Friday night in Lexington. For the first time since Baylor and Texas A&M met in a regional final in 2011, and just the seventh time in 68 regional finals this century, conference opponents square off for a trip to the Final Four when No. 4 Stanford plays No. 7 Washington in Rupp Arena on Sunday.

Stanford won on its home court in January. Washington won in its home city, if not on its court, in the conference tournament.

No other regional final features teams that know each other as well as these, each with a core in its third season of competing against the other. And yet it's familiarity that almost never came to be.

For both teams, junior classes are the foundation of these Final Four bids. Erica McCall, Brianna Roberson, Karlie Samuelson and Lili Thompson form Stanford's core, their development this season and this tournament key to a new era for the Cardinal.

Plum and Chantel Osahor, on the other hand, are two-thirds of a trio that shapes Washington's identity, along with redshirt senior Talia Walton.

It's that junior class that has Washington in position to make its first Final Four.

So it's a good thing it has that junior class.

While still a senior in high school, Plum was pulled out of class one spring day and told then-Washington coach Kevin McGuff was leaving Seattle to take the same job at Ohio State.

Plum and the rest of the committed recruits were soon thereafter released from their national letters of intent, allowed to reconsider and reevaluate their future plans.

"I felt like I had been broken up with, cheated on, something," Plum said. "Really, I was heartbroken. I had already played in the McDonald's [All-American game]; it was done. I just kind of went in shutdown mode for a little bit, turned off my phone and didn't know what to do.

"When I found out that [Mike Neighbors] was going to go for the job, I texted him and I said 'You stay, I stay.' I meant that. I fell in love with the school, my teammates, the other assistant coaches. I wanted to be at Washington. I knew that he could do it."

Although like every basketball junkie, she has seen the movie "Hoosiers," Plum said her text wasn't a conscious nod to the goosebumps-inducing scene in which the character Jimmy Chitwood, the purest of pure scorers, walked into a meeting of townsfolk trying to run the high school coach out of town and told them that he would play, as long as the coach stayed.

You could still be forgiven for overlaying the movie's iconic theme music over highlights of Plum driving or launching 3-pointers as wins piled up and a team chased a trip to Indianapolis.

Even as she offered as both compliment and critique the suggestion that Plum gets away with initiating much of the contact that produces free throws, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer also said Saturday that no player in the Pac-12 is as difficult to defend as Washington's star.

"You've just got to make shots. Stanford is a team that's going to make a lot of shots, and they're going to make you earn it. You're going to have to hit tough shots." Washington star Kelsey Plum

Plum had a few moments of uncertainty about her commitment to Washington. Osahor, the teammate who often gets her the ball in positions to score and runs the offense from the top of the key as a 6-foot-2 basketball version of soccer star Andrea Pirlo, struggled with the decision to an even greater degree.

"I had to take a step back," Osahor said of the time after the coaching change. "I called [Neighbors] up and I was like 'I don't know if I really want to come here anymore.' "

Neighbors visited with her on her turf in Arizona, an attempt to reassure, but in some sense also re-recruit. She wanted to know if Adia Barnes, the assistant with whom the self-professed introvert had developed a strong bond, would still be part of the coaching staff. She wanted to know if the style of play Neighbors pitched on McGuff's behalf would remain the style of play. She wanted to know she would be in an environment that balanced basketball and academics.

"I just felt trust," Osahor continued of those conversations. "I knew he was going to take care of us; what he was going to build was going to be good."

And it wasn't just players who had trepidation in the days after McGuff left. Neighbors could have gone with his old boss to familiar Midwestern ground. And when he thought about the prospect of being the guy whose first act in charge might be losing Plum and Osahor as recruits, he questioned the wisdom of even taking the head job in Seattle. Assured by the administration that he would be given time, regardless of the recruiting situation, the uncertainty passed.

Neighbors loves to compare Osahor to a chess player, despite the fact that the latter said she hasn't played the game since middle school and only vaguely recalls the specific rules for each piece on the board. But he called on playing pieces from another game to try and describe the role the juniors, a class that also includes currently injured guard Brianna Ruiz, played in getting Washington to the moment it now occupies.

Plum and Osahor, along with Ruiz, were like the dominoes that started a chain reaction.

"They really take care of each other," Neighbors said of his players. "And those two guys are a huge part of that, that came in in that first class, along with Brianna."

Plum knows how hard it is to score against Stanford. The Cardinal know how difficult it is to stop Plum. It is a game between two teams whose key players know each other well.

Given the alternative, no one is more thankful that is the case than the Huskies.