By Kyle Koso
Three weeks after practice began for the 2013-14 University of Washington women’s team, backcourt veteran Jazmine Davis and star guard recruit Kelsey Plum sprinted arm-in-arm to coach Mike Neighbors and half-inquired, half-pleaded when they might get a chance to play on the same team for once.
Neighbors understandably had split up his speedster duo during drills, just to provide a balance on the floor as well as whet the appetite for competition between the two.
“Eh, I guess I don’t really see a situation where I’d have you on the floor at the same time,” Neighbors said nonchalantly. “I think we’ll just keep it as is.”
Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have floated a more unsettling script – Davis, a junior coming off a season where she averaged 19.3 points per game, stood still in horror. Plum, a wizard guard out of San Diego and one of the truly electric freshmen of her class, also froze in her spot.
“Nah – I was wondering when you’d ask,” Neighbors laughed. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
Davis and Plum took off with the opportunity and formed one of the nation’s most difficult backcourts to contain, and the two are back again in 2014-15 with the Dawgs one of eight NCAA Division I teams taking part in the Cancun Challenge, Nov. 27-29.
Plum fulfilled her promise and averaged almost 21 points per game while being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year; Davis added about 19 points per game herself and sits at 1,753 career points, only 274 from the all-time UW record. The Dawgs won 20 games for the third consecutive year and reached the quarterfinals of the postseason WNIT, falling at UTEP, 70-63, in front of more than 10,200 fans.
Evidenced by that heartfelt request to see what they could do together, Davis and Plum didn’t find it very mysterious when it came to blending their skills.
“I did nothing special, just put them on the floor. When you have two strong competitive people, I’ve learned they want to be around other competitive people,” Neighbors said. “People wanted to talk about there being a point guard controversy, and I just laugh. It never felt (awkward) inside the program, and I was there for every play. Kelsey and Jazmine could have scored three or 30, and not cared less.”
“It’s definitely a natural fit,” Davis said. “We have good chemistry, and sometimes we don’t even have to speak. But there are times, we will meet at half-court, talk and give encouragement to each other.”
No doubt, the entire UW program needed to lean on each other during that WNIT character test in El Paso, as the frenetic UTEP crowd stepped on the gas and never let up. The Dawgs made some late shots to keep it interesting, but UTEP took advantage of being stronger at the rim and hit its free throws in the final stretch.
Teams can talk about using adversity to better prepare for the future, but the UW women’s squad seems convinced it can get a long-term bounce from that noisy night.
“When we played that game, we all looked at the crowd and realized, that’s the first time we’d been in front of so many people. What we learned was, we trust each other and will stick together,” Davis said. “In that atmosphere, you can’t hear yourself or your teammates, so you have to know a teammate will be there in a certain spot on defense, or will make the extra pass. And as soon as the season ended, we wanted to know when we could start working out again.”
“It was an experience that’s very hard to re-create – you can pipe in all the fake music you want, but when people are screaming and there’s a guy shooting burritos into the crowd instead of T-shirts, that’s a (unique) atmosphere to be a part of,” Neighbors added. “It’s perfect for us, because we open at Oklahoma, and they’ll have 8,000 fans cheering for them.”
Ultimately, the frenzy level won’t be the primary attraction at Cancun, where Washington will take on Florida State (an NCAA tourney qualifier last year), Hartford and Furman. The beach and pool time is just a small part of the assignment, as the Dawgs know they need to solve questions about their frontcourt as well as get the dynamite backcourt to fire away more accurately.
“First and foremost, the (tournament) helps put UW on the map. We get to play high caliber teams, and to compete at that level is always fun and exciting,” Davis said. “We have a couple of players who can’t stop talking about it – they’ve got the countdown for Cancun going. No one’s ever been there (from UW); we don’t really know what to expect, but we know it will be good.”