What they said: Washington faces the media the day before the 2016 Final Four
THE MODERATOR: Joining us is University of Washington head coach Mike Neighbors, student-athletes Talia Walton, Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor. Coach, an opening statement.
COACH NEIGHBORS: Got a really fun team to coach. We’ve had an absolute wonderful time. We are experiencing everything that the Final Four and the city of Indianapolis has to offer. We’re looking forward to games, but we are still soaking all of this in. And we couldn’t be more happy to be representing our university and the State of Washington.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the student-athletes.
Q. Talia, how do you make sure you’re focusing on basketball when there’s a lot of things going on here?
TALIA WALTON: I think it’s important, first of all, to make sure we enjoy, as Coach just said. But once it comes time to focus on basketball, we make sure we lock in when the time permits. So like after we — our thing was after we just finished that practice that was probably like the last bit of — not fun, but enjoying it as much as we have been. And I’d say right now is the time we start focusing on Syracuse.
Q. Chantel, how did you master your flat-footed set shot and what have been the more amusing suggestions for you for how to change it?
CHANTEL OSAHOR: Well, I didn’t really master it. I’ve just been doing it. I guess you could say it’s a God-given talent. If you don’t like it, I guess it’s not a talent to you. People always telling I’ve got to jump, I mean, that’s number one. But a lot of people tell me I need to get — my arc needs to go way higher. And I just tell them: Don’t fix what’s not broken. So I just let people say it, and I just laugh.
Q. Kelsey, you’ve had a rather impressive offensive output this season. You haven’t had a game where you haven’t reached double figures. Talk us through what’s been flowing for you this season?
KELSEY PLUM: Well, I’m really grateful to play in an offense where spacing is so good and I’m allowed to kind of play — I call it downhill, because you have to get out on Chantel as a trail of three, you have to stay locked on Talia in the corner, and Lex has been shooting 45 percent from the field as well. Stay locked on Lex, and then Katie is down by the basket. If you leave her, she’s going to get a layup. It’s because of my teammates and how talented they were, the spacing has allowed me to get a lot of good opportunities.
Q. Kelsey, I think I read a quote from the San Diego paper this week you said coming to Washington was a leap of faith. Would you talk about that a little bit, what kind of a leap was it and how much faith did you have that you would end up in a place like this?
KELSEY PLUM: At the time I chose Washington they weren’t the top of the conference. And they hadn’t made it to the tournament, and I’m not really sure, in maybe 10 years. And we just had a new coach, Coach Kevin McGuff, came in, and he recruited me along with Coach Neighbors. It wasn’t like a sure thing that anything was going to happen.
But I just thought the pieces were right, the teammates were perfect, the system was great, and I love the city of Seattle. So it was a leap of faith, though.
Q. Kelsey, how have you seen Alexus Atchley step up and how big of a boost has she been given to the team?
KELSEY PLUM: Alexus has been absolutely tremendous in our success. Her and T are at the top of that zone, and they cause a lot of havoc. Lex just hustles. She gets those 50/50 balls, gets big rebounds. And, in addition, she just knock down shots. It’s amazing, her growth throughout the season and her ability to be able to step into a role that she didn’t start out being, and she’s done it absolutely brilliantly.
Credit to Lex for coming into her own, and she’s a big part of why we’re here.
Q. Kelsey, you’ve been a scorer throughout your collegiate career, but your steals rate has gone up each of the years you’ve been playing. I’m just curious, what do you think is responsible for sort of your defensive evolution, how you go to balance that between that and obviously carrying a heavy workload on the offensive end?
KELSEY PLUM: As the process has gone on, I’ve tried to pay a lot more attention to my defense. Over the past, maybe my freshman, sophomore year, I didn’t put a lot of effort into it necessarily, because I was so focused on other things, when really I started to grow and realize defense is what matters and that’s how you’re going to win games.
And so I just think watching a lot of film with my guards coach, Coach Castro. Just being in the right position helps. And as you grow older, you see a little bit better things, have better vision. And then just making plays on the defensive end. And I guess that’s all I can say about that.
Q. All three of you, I don’t want to take away from you being serious, but I know there was a lot of anticipation coming here to Final Four and the experience you were going to have. Maybe you can touch on how the experience has been for you so far?
TALIA WALTON: It’s been awesome. Obviously being able to end my collegiate career, coming to the Final Four, is probably the best way I could go out, with my teammates and the coaching staff and the people that I’m surrounded with to do this with makes it even more special. So it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve done a lot of things here that I’ve done for the first time, and this is going to be an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
KELSEY PLUM: I mean, to add on to that, that which she said, and I’m excited about all the free stuff we get. We just got a GoPro in the locker room like five minutes ago and some shoes, some socks. Everybody needed socks. So that was good. But I think that’s something that I’ll definitely take away from this.
CHANTEL OSAHOR: That’s it. That’s good.
Q. Chantel, as a player who is very versatile and capable of many different things on the court, shooting behind the arc, rebounding, is there a particular facet of your game that you pride yourself in or particular facet of your game you enjoy more so than others?
CHANTEL OSAHOR: I think for a long time it’s always been my passing, but I think it’s equally now my passing and my rebounding, and I’ve gotten really good at rebounding. I just kind of have a knack for the ball. But I love, love, love to pass the ball.
Q. Kelsey, obviously you played Syracuse earlier in the year, but outside of that, have you seen any defenses that are similar to Syracuse? And I guess how difficult is it going against a defense like that?
KELSEY PLUM: Syracuse is a very good defensive team, very athletic, cause a lot of havoc in full court and half court. Their zone is tough. It’s kind of a run-and-gun jump zone, and they’re always trying to turn the ball over.
Similar to that, I would kind of say we’ve played teams in the Pac-12 that have similar athleticism, UCLA and Arizona State, that try to turn you over and put a lot of pressure on you. So I think that conference has really prepared us for this game, and we’re excited about it.
Q. Chantel, to go off what you said about you love to pass the ball, you have an incredibly high basketball IQ. It’s very clear when people watch you. Does that come from being — is that a God-given thing, or did you study the game a lot when you were little? Do you have a favorite passer?
CHANTEL OSAHOR: It’s kind of both. The game comes to me really easy, but I do study the game. I watch a ton, a ton, a ton of basketball. Whether it’s film on other teams or whether it’s just watching basketball games. Whenever a basketball game is on, I’m probably watching it, if I’m not in school or not in practice. So I wouldn’t really say I have a favorite passer. Maybe you could say Kevin Love. He has those outlet passes that are pretty good. But, yeah.
Q. Chantel, we talked a couple of weeks or last week about Rebecca Lobo tweeting you, and since then I think became a story on Deadspin, seen Chris Webber shout-out to you on Twitter. What’s the coolest compliment or —
CHANTEL OSAHOR: That’s cool.
KELSEY PLUM: “Sport Science” did a thing on her too.
CHANTEL OSAHOR: That’s probably the coolest today. Our media guy, Ricky, he came to me and said they have a “Sport Science” thing on me. I watched it. You guys should go look at it. It’s pretty awesome. (Laughter).
Q. Talia, could you speak to this as a senior. The word “improbable” has been used for your all’s arrival in the Final Four, and certainly only 12 brackets predicted you guys to be here. Is there anything in particular you can say pushed you over, especially in the Kentucky and the Stanford games that push you over, brought you together? How did you guys get here?
TALIA WALTON: First of all, I think we need to find those 12 people that have those brackets and come up with something, because that’s rare. Is that 2 percent or . 2? Thank you to them.
Our togetherness and one-ness has been phenomenal. I’ve been here five years. It’s technically five different teams, different groups. I’ve never been on a team that has the chemistry that’s as tight as it is here and the bond and vibe we have with one another.
So obviously, like you said, 12 out of how many brackets in the country put in about this for this woman’s tournament, and so all odds against us. Like you said, improbable. Nobody probably didn’t believe we’d be here.
We didn’t worry about that whatsoever. We didn’t care about the outside influences. Our coaches, our trainers, managers, our team, we believed, and that’s why we’re here.
Q. Kelsey, as someone who is part of the game last summer, the Pan Am Games, U.S.A./Canada, I’m wondering what perspective that gave you on what, if anything, could be done to stop Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, number one? And, number two, whether the fact that Ruth and Jamie both being Canadian — do you think that gives them an edge going into tomorrow and this matchup?
KELSEY PLUM: That’s an interesting question. Well, I think, first off, the Pan Am Games really helped me for my experience going into this year, being a better leader and a better basketball player. And then in addition to that, you know, Stewy and Mo are phenomenal players. And they’ve been here before. So that experience is something that is very valuable in a setting like this.
But I think they’re going up against a team in Ruth and Jamie and Syd that they’re very different — you don’t really know how good they are until you step on the court and realize — for me, personally, when I drive in, go against Ruth, she’s a big girl, even though you can’t really get in the paint.
So I think it’s going to be an interesting matchup to watch them and see how UConn kind of counters that, because that really can change the game. But I feel like if anyone can do it, Oregon State can. I believe in the Pac-12. I believe in Oregon State.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Questions for Coach.
Q. You’ve said Chantel thinks like a coach and she has that kind of mindset. I’m curious, what does that mean to you? Is that just about having a greater sense of just more than yourself on the court and knowing all the moving parts?
COACH NEIGHBORS: Yeah, I can rely on her to be out there on the front line doing it and experiencing it. And being able to communicate it to me in a way that most kids can’t. She can make suggestions. She doesn’t just have — she’s got a plan behind it. She’s not just saying it because she wants that to happen. She’ll say get it to T. And it’s not just because T hasn’t touched it, it’s because she’s got a mismatch.
So having a player like that especially around the basket is tremendous. She’s also our biggest communicator in transition defense, and she can really, really organize and gather our team on the floor, when I can’t be out there in those huddles that they have when I’m not in them.
Q. Kelsey has always been a superior one-on-one player, especially taking people off the dribble. She’s really improved this year as a distributor, not just compared to last season but throughout this season. How have you developed that in her when you’re busy coaching the games, other stuff?
COACH NEIGHBORS: She talks about the amount of film that she and Coach Castro watch. It’s really amazing how many times you see them in the film room and she’s bringing in ideas, something that she saw off her iPad. Seeing the angles and knowing that they’re there and having the trust to deliver the ball. Earlier in her career I was on her a lot to shoot it. And I thought we needed that, and we did need that to continue to build her where she’s at.
Now that teams double team her or they flood on her drives, there are three or four options. And now we do kick it because there are those pieces that are confident. And I think as a result that’s obviously completed her game. She could have done that as a freshman and a sophomore. I just didn’t let her. If she passed it, I got mad at her. And that’s on me, but I felt like we had to do that at that point in time to get her in that aggressive mode to drive it in there because that does collapse the defense. And as a result, Talia had her two best years her junior and senior year, and obviously the shots that the other kids get are a result of her a lot of times.
Q. You’re known as the movie buff. What film would best describe your team and what film would or have you shown your team that you think would inspire them?
COACH NEIGHBORS: I don’t show them anything because I want them to kind of experience life on their on. But it’s an easy one. Great movie called the “Little Giants” with Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill, and it’s just one time — that one-time speech they give in the locker room before they go out against his brother’s team. It’s got John Madden in it. It’s a great one, if you all haven’t watched it. It’s a really underrated inspirational movie. That would be for our team.
They ask me all the time for movie tips. They’ll text me and e-mail me. I have them at my house, they’ll borrow them. I don’t make anybody watch anything.
Q. The other day on the teleconference you noted that you think that UConn’s success, you’ve been able to use a little bit of their success as part of your formula to get here. I wondered if you could kind of elaborate on that and maybe specifically say what part you used to get here.
COACH NEIGHBORS: Talking about their dominance, we were asked a question on that, do we think it’s good or bad for the game, and I’m 100 percent behind the fact that I think it’s great for our game. We should be celebrating it and not wasting any ink or air time debating it’s bad for our game.
What they’re doing is incredibly hard. What we use it for is how hard they work. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to watch them practice a couple times, and it is absolutely incredible how much he gets out of that team and his staff get out of that team on a daily basis. Their attention to detail, their singular focus on what’s important now.
And we brought that back to our team. Our win motto is what’s important now, and it’s been a huge part of what we do, trying to win the next thing. And I think when he — their culture just oozes hard work, and it’s unacceptable — they police each other. They don’t have to as coaches say anything. Those players are doing it. And if you walk into that program with anything less than your absolute best effort, it’s a problem.
And that’s a great thing. That’s what we’re starting to get in our program. And now with this next class coming in, we will have that. Now, obviously getting the talent there with that is what he and they have done there over the period of time. And when you’ve got some of the most talented kids working their hardest, they’re pretty unbeatable.
Q. Just to bring you back, season opener you beat Santa Clara 100 to 55. Going back to that game to now, what’s the biggest difference between your team?
COACH NEIGHBORS: What Talia alluded to it. At that time we had a lot of great pieces, but we didn’t have any idea what the puzzle looked like that we were trying to make. I really liked our pieces. We could move some things around. But, man, at that point in time it didn’t look much like a puzzle. We played great that night. You look back at it, we were ready to play because we had a good offseason. But at that point in time we had no clue what this puzzle was going to look like. Now I think we’re just a couple of pieces away from being able to finish that thing.
Q. In terms of what you were talking about with UConn before, how many of your fellow coaches do you think subscribe to that same notion that you can use UConn as a pedestal to try to reach as opposed to the counter, their dominance is not good for the game?
COACH NEIGHBORS: I hope a lot of them do, because that gives us a chance. I hope there are people that are picking at it. Because if they’re focused on that, I don’t think they’re focused on the right things and I don’t think their programs will continue to be successful, if they’re trying to bring somebody else down. My Papa Neighbors growing up always told me that if you’ve got a candle and you light somebody else’s, it doesn’t make yours less bright.
I think any coach out there that’s not using what they’re doing, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity and it’s going to hurt their program down the line at some point in time. So I hope there’s a lot of them out there doing it. I suspect there’s not very many people that would disagree that what they’re doing is great.
Q. Going into tomorrow’s night’s game with Syracuse facing a defense that Coach McGraw says the best she’s seen and 3-point threat in Brianna Butler, what are some of the challenges on both sides of the ball preparing for Syracuse, even though you have faced them earlier this year?
COACH NEIGHBORS: Hardest thing is simulating it. We can’t simulate without our guys’ practice team here. For the last four days I’ve had a group of kids that can’t simulate their speed and athleticism and them knowing what they’re going to do. You would have to break down an exorbitant amount of film and spend a lot of time to try predict and assimilate what they do.
So the challenge is adjusting in the game. About the time you adjust, so does Q. He’s a really end-game coach. He does not get the credit in our game for his ability to manage a game. And I think he’s one of the best at it. He’s got some great assistants that sit over there beside him that understand the Xs and Os, and he will adjust. Every time you make an adjustment and figure something out, he’s got a counterpunch. And that’s why they beat us down there at their place. He outcoached me.
Q. Speaking of Q, I was interested in your response on the conference call this week about your relationship with him. Wouldn’t have seen that coming. I was just curious, did you know him at all before, or is it strictly since the first game? And besides the fact that you both coached very good teams, what do you find bonds or what’s in common?
COACH NEIGHBORS: He was an assistant in Alabama back in the day when I was an up-and-coming coach. We were in similar gyms. I coached at Tulsa and Arkansas and I was in the Midwest. So we were recruiting in some of the same areas. And I just got a kick out of him initially because he’s got a little flair and a little swagger about him, and I kind of wanted to know what it was like.
So I set up next to him a couple times and just really got to like him. He’s a really, really good person. And if you don’t take the time to get to know him, I think a lot of people have an opinion or a misconception, just because he’s going to carry a Louis Vuitton bag or his glasses are sharp. He’s going to outdress me tomorrow, and there’s no chance I’m going to win that. I’m not even going to try.
But he’s somebody that I think has done it the right way. He’s paid his dues coming up as an assistant coach, as a high school as well. So we had some common themes and some common threads that I really admired and tried to emulate some of his things.
Q. You do some things a little bit differently, you have a unique style. Have you always sort of been this independent thinker, or is it something you’ve kind of developed picking from different pieces of your experience?
COACH NEIGHBORS: Was not. I was not a very independent thinker. I had a heart attack at 29. It was an eye-opening moment that your life’s really, really short. I started to take some inventory of things I had been doing those first 29 years. I found out I could read 40 words a minute as a college graduate, I was kind of embarrassed about that. So I started reading. And the more I’ve read, the more books I’ve come in contact with, it’s just completely — I started writing things out. I write down my philosophies and I share them with other people. And when you have to write them down, as you well know, people can then take issue with it. If you just think it, nobody can — but when you write it down, people then take issue with it.
I think it made me more independent. And the heart attack and all that stuff, I stopped worrying about what anybody thinks. I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to write about it. I’m going to do what we’re going to do. And hopefully they’re the right things.
But I really care about — I’m just going to care about our kids, and I think the rest of that stuff takes over. It started with the heart attack and has morphed into the reading and just sharing experiences with these people that write these books.
Q. About Kelsey, one is just the evolution of her defense. She was speaking to me about how you talked about her becoming a more complete player, and just what you’ve seen if there was a moment where you felt like that sort of clicked for her. And just the other part of it is it seems like she brings so much evident joy to the court when she’s playing. To what extent is that joy really powering what you guys are doing?
COACH NEIGHBORS: The evolution part, I think the USA Basketball experiences have helped her immensely because when she gets with these other great players and her playing time sometimes is limited around them, and she knew that it was because of her defense a lot of times. She wanted to get better at it. She guarded the other teams best player a lot of minutes this year.
Until Lex came in our starting lineup, a lot of times she was the one drawing that assignment. It’s a lot of film work. Y’all will see her. That kid looks like 90 percent of the other kids walking down the mall. If you saw her shopping, you wouldn’t know she was Kelsey Plum. She’s not six-foot anything. She couldn’t run from here to there faster than most people sitting here. She just looks like every kid else that’s out there.
But she has an incredible desire to win and work at it. Not just to win, but she wants to do the work. She’s that kid that’s — I use my Papa Neighbors all the time, and he comes back to me right now, he said everybody wants to be a rock star on stage, but nobody wants to practice in the garage.
That kid wants to practice in the garage. She came to Washington, you saw our practice facilities. We tried to keep her out of it. Should we even show her the gym? (Laughter). But she doesn’t care about that. She could care less. She’s about people. And I think that’s been a huge part of her. That’s why she’s the person on the court that y’all see talking and engaging.
Somebody asked me, was watching one of our films against Kentucky, and they said that they counted and we high-fived, back slapped or did something 976 times in that game. And you go back and you watched it, and it’s every possession there’s some of that going on. And it’s everybody, but she certainly is a huge part of it as well.
Q. You’re really close with Kevin McGuff. He’s here this week for the Coaches Convention. Have you talked to him? Has he given you any advice? He was on Muffet’s staff when they won it back in 2001. Have you guys talked? Has he broken down film with you?
COACH NEIGHBORS: Not breaking down film. A lot of advice. He’s usually my phone call on everything, period, not much less just Final Four. So he’s the smartest guy I know. So he gave me some great stuff and some really bullet point stuff that’s really helped us this week.
Then I talked to Coach Blair who won a championship here as well. I worked with him for a few years. I pick Jeff Walz’ brain. Anybody that would return a phone call that’s been here, I’ve certainly wanted their input. Kevin is somebody I talk to every day sometimes not about basketball, but we still talk every day.
Q. For the kids on the West Coast that felt they had to go back east to win a title. A lot of kids go — Tennessee has three Oregonians, people have been going to UConn forever. To have two teams from the Northwest, what’s that going to do for recruiting kids west of the Mississippi, really?
COACH NEIGHBORS: I think it lets everybody know that you can stay in the same time zone and compete. We’ve talked about it. But we’ve never been able to prove it. In the past we’ve been selling vision and we’ve been selling some what-if things. Quite frankly, it’s hard to blame them. I get it. The number of people that have come up to me talking about Chantel Osahor this last week, that kid’s been doing that for three weeks. Everybody on the West Coast knows it. It’s not a shock.
But I get it. It’s hard to stay up — my family lives in this time zone, it’s hard to talk to them. I get it. But now all of those kids out there are going to get a chance to see us, know that they can play in the same time zone, a direct flight home, an up and back, a drive. I think it’s going to help us immensely. It already has, just the number of people that have answered phone calls and reaching out to us.
And I’m sure Scott will say the same thing. It’s something we’ve talked at Pac-12 meetings for a long time. We needed to focus on these kids and building a league. There were a lot of prongs to that. Scheduling better, being smarter in our scheduling and playing in other time zones, being willing to do that, raising our profile and sticking together.
We’ve been fighting against each other trying to beat, to catch Stanford. We gotta knock Stanford off. They’ve won this thing 18 out of the last 21 years. When we started coming together and looking out for each other, Coach VanDerveer sent a player to Cal that she didn’t have room for. We get that a lot. This kid doesn’t fit us, maybe they do y’all. And that’s changed over the last five years. As a result, the league has raised its profile, and now we’ve got some proof behind just standing up and talking about it.
Q. Going into the matchup tomorrow night, you played them back in Vegas in November, and specifically Alexis Peterson, what you saw from her that night and subsequently what you’ve seen on video of her, maybe the differences in her as an individual player?
COACH NEIGHBORS: Yeah, she’s really taken that team over and in control and leading it. Obviously they’ve got a lot of weapons they can hit you with. But you can tell she’s in control. Q was talking about it last night that that’s the kid that he wants the ball in her hands because he knows she’s going to make the right decisions.
I’ll be honest, I had our kids poorly prepared in Vegas. You were at the game. You saw it. We weren’t very good that day. They were really good. We had to really come back after being down 19 points to even make it a contest. I’d underestimated. I watched Alexis Peterson play in high school when I was coaching at Xavier. I underestimated. I didn’t have our kids very well prepared for their intense pressure. I was not dismissive, but I was like we’re going to be fine, we’ve seen this. We weren’t. We weren’t.
So I’ll have them a little bit better prepared. But they were very good. I think we’ve improved since then. I think they have too. And she deserves a lot of the credit for it. But I also think their group has tightened up as well. You can see it in them. They’re fun to watch. When you get a team that’s fun to watch, you know they’re working hard and fun to coach.