- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Washington coach Kevin McGuff insists his team didn't circle these dates on the calendar, that they stayed focused on what was immediately in front of them, not way ahead on the horizon.
But that horizon is now what's next, and Washington has a distinct opportunity to disrupt the balance of power in the Pac-12. Summoning the ability to take advantage of that opportunity is the trick.
The Pac-12 tournament is moving to Seattle's KeyArena, home of the WNBA's Seattle Storm and one of women's basketball's most dedicated fan bases, this weekend. The Huskies are hoping to take advantage of the hometown crowd.
The No. 5 seed, the Huskies open tournament play on Thursday night against last-place Oregon, a team they swept during the regular season. A victory would send the Huskies into a matchup with No. 4 seed Colorado, a game Washington almost certainly has to win to stay in the conversation for the NCAA tournament. In reality, it might take even more.
"We know we have to have a good outing to become relevant again," said fifth-year senior Kristi Kingma.
The Huskies were indeed relevant at the beginning of the Pac-12 season. Washington started 8-2, keeping pace with the top teams in the conference. At one point, Washington -- which hasn't made the NCAA field since 2007 -- was 16-5, looking NCAA worthy and getting votes in the national polls.
The second half of the league schedule didn't go as well. Washington was 3-5 down the stretch, closing with four straight losses, three to ranked teams: Colorado, Stanford and Cal.
"We are a very young team and we don't have a ton of experience," Kingma said. "We were in pressure situations with a lack of experience and lack of tough games. We had such a successful start. We had broken so many people's expectations and we broke out of our own. It was a whirlwind and we were caught up in it. We got into a slump and I don't think we really knew how to handle it."
The slump was thanks to a schedule that got tougher down the stretch. The most difficult conference games came in the second half, including the Huskies' only meetings with Stanford and Cal. Washington hosted both in the final weekend.
McGuff made a tough decision to suspend starters Talia Walton and leading scorer Jazmine Davis for a violation of team rules for the Stanford game last Thursday. Both returned on Sunday against Cal, but the Huskies couldn't keep up with a Bears team trying to stay with the Cardinal for a share of the league title. Cal won easily 78-50.
It was a disappointing regular-season finish for Washington.
"We had some really good moments, but we haven't played as well lately," McGuff said. "We've got to get it back together this week."
Davis said it was a difficult week and she has learned a lesson about leadership. The suspension cost the Huskies any chance to challenge the No. 4-ranked Cardinal and another subpar effort against the Bears left Washington to watch Cal celebrate a league championship on the Huskies' home floor.
"It was tough not to play and it was tough falling to Cal like that," Davis said. "It just showed me that you have got to be smart, that being a leader comes with a lot of responsibility. I'm glad things went the way they did, with the consequences."
Kingma said the Huskies have a home-court advantage at KeyArena.
"We've got rooter buses coming with students and athletes from teams, it could be a tremendous advantage for us," Kingma said. "You never know what could happen when you have hometown support. It could be a big boost for us."
The Huskies are a young team that lacks depth. They have had six players out because of injuries at various points this season.
Davis is the team's leading scorer, averaging 19.2 points a game. The Huskies have strong perimeter shooting with Kingma, who has a league-leading 83 3-pointers this season, and Walton, who has hit another 50. For all that perimeter offense, the Huskies are not deep or particularly big inside. They rank last in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin.
Mary Murphy, a Pac-12 analyst who will work the championship game for EPSN2 on Sunday night (8 p.m. ET), said Washington has an opportunity to make noise in the tournament and give the NCAA selection committee something to think about.
"Last week, those suspensions came at an unfortunate time, at one of the most important parts of the schedule," Murphy said. "I expected them to play a better game against Cal and that didn't happen. But if they make 3s. … I don't know if they have the depth to get all the way to the finals, but if they shoot the ball well, I think it could be very interesting."
McGuff said he has a good sense of what his team needs to do. It's pretty simple, actually: play better. Geography, at this point, doesn't matter.
"We need to play harder, with more passion and energy, more aggressiveness," McGuff said. "We are not the biggest team and we don't have a lot of depth, so there's only a little margin for error. If we are not doing the little things, we are not going to have success."
Caught in a late-season slump, Washington hopes the home-court advantage at Seattle's KeyArena will help it turn things around in the Pac-12 tournament.