SEATTLE — UCLA coach Cori Close is in a peculiar position.
She’s part of a select group of coaches who offer frequent updates to the NCAA women’s basketball selection committee regarding at-large tournament bids. A former associate head coach at Florida State, Close’s job is basically pitching the Pac-12.
Close said she believes the conference has five NCAA tournament-quality teams — Washington currently being the fifth. The Pac-12 already has four nationally ranked teams in No. 4 Stanford, No. 6 California, No. 17 UCLA and No. 21 Colorado.
“I think they (the Huskies) are going to need one or two signature wins against somebody in the top 25 that’s going to give them that legitimacy,” said Close, acknowledging UW doesn’t have a top-50 RPI ranking.
With eight games remaining in the regular season for the Huskies, four against the conference’s ranked opponents, that first chance is, well, UCLA on Friday at Alaska Airlines Arena. The Bruins (17-4, 8-2 Pac-12) and Huskies (16-5, 8-2) are tied for third in the conference with a three-game lead over Colorado (16-5, 5-5).
Washington has won six in a row, albeit against the Pac-12’s bottom half. It beat UCLA at home last season and closed to five points of the Bruins in the waning minutes of an eventual 85-68 road defeat in January.
The last time even a glimmer of the national spotlight shed on Washington, it was coincidentally also in February and also against UCLA.
“I was 12,” said Kristi Kingma, a Washington redshirt senior.
With her father in tow, Kingma was among the fans clad in purple at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Kingma’s hero, guard Megan Franza, plus Giuliana Mendiola, Loree Payne and Andrea Lalum were the key players on a team ranked 25th and in the midst of an 18-game home win streak.
It was an electric, record-setting night Feb. 1, 2003, beginning with 8,408 spectators jammed into the arena for the largest women’s basketball attendance in school history. Mendiola scored a school-record 43 points as the Huskies defeated the Bruins 111-77, the most points ever in a Pac-10 game.
But, seemingly, the lights went out. UW hasn’t been ranked since March 2003.
When Kingma, one of two seniors on the current roster, enrolled in 2008, the program was at its worst. Under former coach Tia Jackson, the Huskies experienced a 12-game losing streak, finishing 8-22 in Kingma’s freshman season.
Kevin McGuff went 20-14 last season in his first year as the UW coach, the first 20-victory season since 2007.
“It just seemed so far off, even my freshman year,” Kingma said of winning. “To be in the position we’re in to actually have an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, we know we have a lot of business to take care of before that, but … to be in that position now is crazy.”
Washington’s offense has improved to averaging 72.7 points in conference play compared to 67.7 overall this season. The Huskies trimmed turnovers, totaling 15 in the UCLA road loss to 10 combined in last weekend’s road wins against defensive-minded Arizona State and Arizona.
McGuff inherited star-quality recruits in sophomore point guard Jazmine Davis, redshirt freshman forward Talia Walton and sophomore forward Aminah Williams. Davis (20.1) and Walton (17.5) are two of the conference’s top five scorers in Pac-12 games. Williams is fourth in conference in rebounding (10 per game).
The Bruins, however, are second to Washington in conference scoring (69.3 points) and lead in average assists (17) and steals (11.6). Plus, regardless of a UW win, the previous Pac-10 hasn’t had more than three tournament teams since 2007. In 2006 it had six, including Washington.
Is an NCAA berth realistic for the Huskies?
“All I can ask for is that they are legitimately listening to our evidence,” Close said. “And the Pac-12 Networks has helped a ton. DirecTV still needs to get on board, but the committee has been able to watch so many more games in various ways.
“In the past, all they were doing was looking at numbers and trying to imagine it. Maybe they’d catch a few (televised) games but if it was a bad one — we were just so outnumbered in our exposure with the East Coast. Coming from the ACC, I can tell that was a bias. Now that I’m here, that is making a tremendous difference in pleading our case. It’s not just a bunch of numbers; they also have a chance to see it with their own eyes.”
McGuff isn’t seeing any of it, yet.
“All of those things are important for the growth of our program,” he said of national recognition. “But the most important thing for me is that our players stay focused on getting better, having great practices on a daily basis and getting ready for our next opponent.”
And that next opponent could potentially be the one that turns the light back on Washington.