LEXINGTON, Ky. -- With the way Chantel Osahor plays basketball, vision that seems to see a few seconds into the future, you wondered if she already knew that the ball rolling toward the end line in the second quarter had last touched a Stanford player. It looked like she might dive for it, but then she held up and glanced over her shoulder toward the referee, as if to confirm her belief that she didn't need to risk the collision with the court.
Actually, with the way Osahor played all weekend in Rupp Arena, you wondered if the referee made up his mind based on her reaction. There is a possibly fictitious old baseball story about an umpire who told a catcher complaining about balls and strikes when Hall of Famer Ted Williams was in the batter's box that "Mr. Williams will let you know when it is a strike."
Osahor leaves you with a similar feeling. You trust her eyes more than your own.
Either way, the ball rolled out of bounds. The referee's arm pointed Washington's way.
Even if he didn't follow Osahor's lead, seventh-seeded Washington certainly did. All the way to its first Final Four after an 85-76 win against No. 4 seed Stanford in the Lexington regional final.
And after one of the longest and most improbable runs in women's NCAA tournament history.
By the time they get to Indianapolis, via Seattle in what is the very long route to a city only about 200 miles from Lexington, the Huskies will have traveled roughly 15,000 miles in the tournament alone (for comparison sake, the Cincinnati Reds traveled a little more than 20,000 miles in the entire 2015 Major League Baseball season).
Washington defeated the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the region on their respective home courts. And while the Huskies didn't have to go through the No. 1 seed in the end, they did have to beat a conference rival that had dominated the series between the two schools for decades.
It was a difficult path to glory. But the Huskies had a good model for that in their 6-foot-2 junior who is part post scorer, rebounder and interior defender but also high-post passer and 3-point shooter.
Stanford had no answer for Osahor, who totaled 24 points and 18 rebounds and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the regional after averaging 21.5 points, 17.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists. And in truth, if a series of injuries, ailments and even a car accident didn't stop her along the way, perhaps little will.
"I'm so glad that they gave her the MVP because she was the most deserving person of it," said Washington's Kelsey Plum, who led all scorers in the regional by averaging 24.5 points per game. "She really controlled the game -- on the defensive end; on the offensive end she made big shots.
"Chantel, that kid has been so resilient. She's been looked past all year long. ... I think the chip on her shoulder and that toughness really showed out."
Nor was it just people in purple who felt that way
Reiterating what she said leading up to the game, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said there is no player on any team the Cardinal faced this season that is more difficult to defend than Plum. And as was the case when Washington won three weeks ago in the Pac-12 tournament, the guard was every bit the All-American in this game, distributing the ball early and creating points for herself to stave off any Stanford comeback late. But she had company.
"Osahor was really the difference," VanDerveer said.
"I think she's the toughest matchup in the country."UW coach Mike Neighbors on Chantel Osahor
Washington coach Mike Neighbors joked, sort of, all week about the notion of people still just discovering Osahor (kind of the way they used to "discover" new lands that had been going about their existence rather well for millennia). That isn't just fans and media, but the opponents who don't respect the rebounding machine's 3-point shot.
Stanford shouldn't have been on that list. A day before the game, Cardinal standout Erica McCall talked about seeing Osahor in West Coast youth competitions and respecting her game even then. The Cardinal also had three years of Pac-12 evidence. But there Osahor was, open at the 3-point line twice in the game's opening 130 seconds. She hit both shots with her telltale set shot, part of a 12-0 opening run that set the terms of the game.
When later called to dominate the paint, she did just that, calmly turning and finishing for layups or getting to the line. She prefers to set up, but she closed.
"Most of the time, I do actually enjoy passing more than shooting the ball," Osahor said. "It has just always been a part of my game. I love doing it; I love seeing everyone get hyped. It's something that I love to do."
At the same time, even if we shouldn't be surprised at the performances, part of the beauty of the NCAA tournament is its ability to show us what we've been missing. At its best, it doesn't just confirm what is already known. It gives someone like Louisville's Angel McCoughtry, Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen or even Missouri State's Jackie Stiles the stage they deserve. And Osahor has come a long way to get here -- not just in terms of air miles this month.
As a freshman, she was hit by a car while riding her bike on campus, an accident that left her with a significant shoulder injury. There have been foot and knee injuries, too, as well as degenerative knee issues that assistant coach Adia Barnes described in terms of arthritis and Neighbors said related to her frame.
"She's tough," said Plum, who was on the scene when Osahor was hit by the car. "It's inspiring because if you're like, 'Oh, man, my ankle hurts,' or, 'My back hurts,' and you look over at Chantel battling, I'm fine. She's going through a lot. She's so resilient and has been able to understand her body and understand what she needs to do to take care of it. And she's been tremendously consistent."
"Osahor was really the difference."Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer
She doesn't practice on a full-time basis, doesn't go through all the same drills to get ready for a game. She does things at her pace on the court and to get on the court. Sunday, VanDerveer lamented that the Cardinal simply couldn't speed her, and thereby the Huskies, up.
"She's put in so much extra work, during the summers, during the year, outside of our normal practice stuff," Neighbors said. "She was the architect of 99 percent of it. The 1 percent was me saying yes. I believe in her. Everybody says they can't believe that kid doesn't warm up or doesn't do this or that. She's not trying to get out of anything.
"She knows for her to do [what she did in Lexington], she has to do that."
Osahor said Sunday there was never a time when she questioned whether basketball would work out for her, faith and conversations with her mother enough to pull her through the tough times. But for someone who loves few things more than watching basketball, not surprisingly the cerebral San Antonio Spurs most of all, the sport was not always kind to her in return. The path to the Final Four was far from an easy one. It kind of puts the supposed adversity of long flights and home-court advantages in perspective.
Neighbors said that with about five minutes remaining in the game and Stanford rallying, finally stretching Washington's zone with the 3-pointers that wouldn't fall in the first three quarters, Osahor suggested the Huskies switch to a man-to-man defense. They did, and the rally faded.
Watch her enough, and it doesn't take long to get there, and you just trust her on a basketball court. If she thinks a new defense would work, it probably would. If she thinks the ball was out of bounds off a Stanford player, it probably was.
"I've said it all year," Neighbors said. "I think she's the toughest matchup in the country."
The Huskies will be able to explain why to all of us for another week.