Thanks to major turnaround, Washington women believe they have shot at NCAA tournament

There was a time not too long ago when Washington had reached the upper echelon of women's college basketball on the West Coast.

Kristi Kingma remembers those times, when she drove with her dad from her suburban Seattle home across the state to watch the Huskies play for a chance at the Final Four.

"I literally just get goose bumps and think back to those moments of being 11 and 12 and going to Spokane and watching those girls play," Kingma said. "Those girls were my heroes, they were everything to me, and to be in that position now is crazy and it's surreal and it's really humbling."

Washington is in the midst of a women's hoops resurgence in its second year under coach Kevin McGuff. The Huskies are 16-7 overall and 9-3 in Pac-12 play heading into a key four-game road trip that starts Friday night at Oregon and includes games at Oregon State, Utah and Colorado.

How Washington does in those four games will likely determine whether the Huskies have a shot at making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Each of the past two weeks they've received votes in the AP Top 25, a significant milestone considering the Huskies have not been ranked since late in the 2003 season.

McGuff acknowledges he should promote those little milestones more than he does. But it's not his nature — not with the Huskies still rebuilding.

"I probably should in some instances to help promote our program as we continue to grow and evolve. I'm such a narrow-minded, 'practice, practice, game, who is our next opponent?'" McGuff said. "I think it's kind of my personality, but also in this day and age it's easy for kids to get caught up in other things and all those things are important for the growth of our program, but the most important thing for me is our players' focus on getting better and having great practices on a daily basis."

When McGuff took over before the start of the 2011-12 season he inherited a program that went a combined 45-75 in the previous four seasons under Tia Jackson and was rife with player departures and fan resentment. It was rock bottom for a program that was one win away from reaching the Final Four in 2001 and went to the NCAA tournament six times between 1997 and 2007 under former coach June Daugherty.

McGuff's history showed he could turn a struggling program with a bit of historical success back into a winner. He did it at Xavier, where he won 20 games in his first season in 2003 and compiled a 214-73 record in nine seasons.

"I look back and look where we are now, that is definitely ahead of schedule to me," Kingma said. "Coach McGuff has done so much with the bodies he's had, with the low numbers he's had. And especially as a senior looking back, I've had a few rough years and to have this year of some success and a little recognition and kind of bringing that excitement back to Washington, I would say it's ahead of schedule."

McGuff was forced to make a philosophical shift between his first and second seasons. His first Washington team was primarily oriented around post players. This season, the Huskies are undersized compared to most of the Pac-12, but have made up for it by being one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the country. Washington enters this week No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 10th nationally with 8.3 3-pointers per game.

Jazmine Davis was the Pac-12 freshman of the year a season ago and has continued to play at an all-Pac-12 level, averaging 19.9 points — good for second in the conference. But it's been the emergence of Talia Walton and the return of Kingma that has really propelled Washington's scoring.

Walton redshirted last season, a decision that's proved a benefit with the freshman averaging 15 points. Kingma also missed last season with a torn ACL suffered in a preseason exhibition game in Norway.

Conceivably, the Huskies should have been even better this season, but McDonald's All-American Katie Collier was lost for the year to a torn knee ligament before the season began. The loss of Collier left Washington even thinner in the frontcourt, but also lends credence to the optimism that what the Huskies have accomplished already this year can continue in the future.

"That all has to be based off Coach McGuff," Walton said. "He gives us the tools that we need to just build it."