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Thursday, March 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW Women's Basketball

"We've got to go out fighting"

Seattle Times staff reporter

At a time when seniors Kristen O'Neill and Nicole Castro need to pull from their experience to guide the Washington women's basketball team into the NCAA tournament, reflecting on their last appearance is like picking at a scab.

Washington, making its third trip to Eugene, Ore., in the 2003 season after playing the regular-season finale and Pac-10 tournament there, was set to face Wisconsin-Green Bay in the opening round at McArthur Court. The banners had changed and the intensity increased, but the No. 8 seed Huskies came out flat in a 78-65 loss.

Maybe it was the no-frills bus ride. Or the fact that a trip to Oregon was about as thrilling as Monday-morning traffic.

"It really didn't even feel like the 'Big Dance' that everyone talks about," O'Neill said. "There just didn't seem to be as much excitement as there is now. It was, 'Oh, we're going back to Oregon.' We were one and done before I got a taste of enjoying the whole tournament atmosphere. It just felt like another trip to Eugene."

Erica Schelly, who was also on the roster for that early Huskies exit, added: "Going to Oregon was old hat. I remember the feeling after the game: 'We had our chance. We should have done more with it.' I hate that feeling. This year we get another chance, and we want to capitalize on it and make the most of it."

This time, the Huskies are heading to Nashville for a Saturday morning game. No. 9 seed Washington's opening-round opponent, No. 8 seed Minnesota, is making its fifth consecutive trip and is 5-0 in first-round games. The UW has a 7-4 opening-round record.

No worries. Washington coach June Daugherty said she's pulling from the team's preseason schedule when it traveled to Alabama and Florida State, winning both games. The Huskies also traveled to Baylor and Texas A&M, but lost.

Saturday

No. 8 Minnesota (19-9) vs. No. 9 Washington (18-10), 9 a.m., ESPN2

Then there are the seniors. O'Neill can hardly remember the 2003 tourney loss — but did call it an "ugly game" — because of all the team has been through since. There were two disappointing seasons, finishing in the bottom half of the Pac-10; O'Neill missing the 2003-04 season with a stress fracture in her left foot; family deaths; and the multiple retirements of senior Kayla Burt.

"More than anything, it's trying to share with the girls the sense of urgency we need to have and to truly appreciate this because being here five years and only having gone one time, I truly appreciate this," O'Neill said.

"And we get to go all the way to Tennessee. But I would have gone anywhere. I would have gone back to Eugene just to be in the dance because now I think I understand how cool it is to be invited."

O'Neill, who averages 8.3 points and 3.7 rebounds, will move back to a reserve role against Minnesota. Daugherty started the versatile guard in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinal matchup against USC, hoping to tap into O'Neill's leadership.

But in the two weeks since the tournament, sophomore Dominique Banks has played her way back into the starting lineup.

The 70-67 loss to USC was the only game Banks hadn't started all season and was Washington's third consecutive defeat — a first this season.

"We got better from it [losing the final three games] and know what that losing feeling feels like and don't want to feel it again," said Castro, who averages 8.4 minutes. "Kayla and Kristen would say the same thing in it's weird to think this could be our last practice on this court [Edmundson Pavilion].

"And when we go [to Nashville], every day could be the last, so we've got to go out fighting. We don't want to see the last until the very end."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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