January 25, 2024
How Tina Langley is leading the Washington Huskies’ resurgence
Langley: ‘I think it’s gonna be fun to watch them grow’
The Washington Huskies have reentered the national conversation for the first time in several years. They first caught everyone’s eye when they started the season 11-0, tied for their best start in program history, the only other time being 1976-77. After they defeated in-state, ranked rival Washington State, they received a ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
2013 to 2017 were amazing years for the Huskies. Kelsey Plum — the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, WNBA No. 1 pick in 2017, and two-time WNBA champion with the Las Vegas Aces — led Washington to unprecedented success.
Since Plum graduated, Washington has, understandably, struggled. It’s entirely possible that the Huskies will never reach the same level of success managed with Plum. She led the team to its lone appearance in the Final Four with her one-in-a-million talent.
Now, Washington is having its most success since Plum’s departure. What has sparked this success?
She would never say this herself, but at least part of the answer is the arrival of head coach Tina Langley in April 2021.
Langley, however, does not take credit. “It’s all attributed to the student-athletes,” Langley told reporters in a weekly press availability. “It is a grind to play defense. Defense is about toughness. It’s about understanding the system and what we’re trying to accomplish. We’ve been fortunate to recruit really high-IQ student athletes who are very athletic, that want to play the game at a high level, and so they’re committed to learning that system and just playing a certain way.”
Looking to rebuild, Washington hired Langley as its next head coach, signing her to a six-year, $4 million contract.
Langley had spent the past six years drastically turning around Rice from bottom of the conference to NCAA Tournament berths and a Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship in her final season. Washington hoped she could do the same in Seattle, and there was a good amount of excitement around her hire.
So far, she is successfully doing what the university hired her to do.
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Already seeing improvement
To fully appreciate how much this team has improved, it is worth looking back at where the program was when Langley first joined.
The four years prior to Langley’s hire and after Plum’s graduation, the Huskies finished 12th, 11th, tied for ninth and 11th in a 12-team conference.
During the 2021 offseason, just before Langley’s hire, the team’s top three scorers entered the transfer portal. One of them ended up staying, and Haley Van Dyke was fantastic in her remaining years. The other two, Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler, transferred. You may recognize them as key members of the AP third-ranked team in the nation, the Colorado Buffaloes.
The freshman class that was supposed to play Langley’s first season was ranked 16th nationally among 2021 recruits by espnW. None of them still play for the Huskies. Three went to other schools immediately, and one spent a season at UW before transferring.
As a result, Langley’s team finished last in the Pac-12 in her first season. But the rebuild had begun.
Last season the Huskies vastly improved their record from the previous one, finishing tied for eighth in the conference and advancing to the Fab Four of the WNIT. That marked the best conference record and first postseason appearance since Plum played for the Dawgs.
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Doing it through defense
So, what has Langley done to spur this improvement? One of the biggest things is she’s coached up one of the top Division I defenses in the country.
I will refrain from listing too many stats, but here are some that give an idea of just how much the defense has improved.
This season the Huskies are averaging 53.5 opponent points per game, the seventh-best in all of DI. Opponent field goal percentage average is 35.9%, 16th-best in the country. They allow opponents only 8.8 assists per game, which is sixth-best.
Looking at the exact same statistics for the 2022-23 season, Washington ranked 41st, 67th and 72nd, respectively. The year before, 109th, 104th and 70th, in the same order. Those are not bad rankings out of 356 teams, but the Huskies have shown very clear improvement over the years and are now among the best.
Starting junior forward Dalayah Daniels, who is in her second year at Washington after transferring from Cal, feels that a new, higher level of focus on the team’s part has also helped.
“I think we take a lot more pride in our defense and we realize that we’re just as good defensively as we are offensively,” Daniels told media after a home win against Arizona. “I think just focusing on those points, like every single time we come in, we’re not under estimating any team. … We have to focus and really know the scout. So I feel like we’ve still been improving on that, but obviously a ways to go.”
Sophomore guard Elle Ladine, the team’s leading scorer, added, “We work on it every day. And we have a couple, three, girls coming back from last year, and then me and Hannah with a little more experience. So I feel like the experience just helps a lot as well.”
The most experienced player on the team is senior forward Lauren Schwartz, who has seen the change firsthand.
“I think we always revert back to this, but culture,” Schwartz told The Next. “I think culture is such an important thing, and the way [Langley] has brought it here and the way she has recruited the people here. I think culture just is a part of the process, and that’s created what we have done so far here.”
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Culture, culture, culture
That focus on culture is very purposeful, and its improvement is also what Langley contributes the success to.
“I think our culture continues to get stronger and stronger,” Langley said. “All of the people involved in the program are completely committed to that culture, and that’s a culture of servant leadership, and unity, and growth, and passion and servanthood. … We see today as an opportunity to get better and learn. So very accountable culture, and I think that allows you to grow faster.”
You can’t change culture without buy-in from players. Langley’s character has largely earned that buy-in.
Schwartz began her college career with Langley at Rice. Ahead of the 2021-22 season she transferred, across the country and away from home, to follow her head coach to Montlake.
When Schwartz committed to Rice she saw how quickly the team improved and wanted to be a part of that. When Langley moved, Schwartz still wanted to be a part of that.
“She always looks at you outside of basketball as a person,” Schwartz said of Langley. “It’s like, ‘What can you become outside of basketball and how can we prepare you for outside of basketball?’ So I think that relationship part and her just having your best intention at mind and at hand really intrigued me to come here and be a part of Washington and the process and the culture that she has created here.
“Just having a relationship with your staff and your head coach is really important. And the culture that she brings. … She recruits those type of people that you want to be with you, want to play with and you want to love and care for. So I think just being a part of that is such a huge, huge thing that Coach Langley brings.”
The forward wishes people knew about everything her coach does behind the scenes that she feels makes the team better on and off the court.
“I think she’s a really hard worker, and she really wants us to be at our best at all times. … She just wants everybody to be at their best — even including her staff and her coworkers. I think it just goes to show how much she loves each and every one of us, and it’s really important to her. I think the world just needs to know how dedicated she is to each of us.”
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A breakthrough win
As I mentioned, the Huskies started the season with 11 straight wins. Their first loss came in a slim loss at 19th-ranked Louisville. After that loss they lost to California, Stanford and Washington State. They broke the losing streak at home against Arizona on Jan. 19 but lost to Arizona State two days later.
It’s worth noting that the win over Arizona broke a streak of seven straight victories over the Huskies for the Wildcats. The game came down to a bucket in the last eight seconds, so even though it was flanked by losses, it was a big moment for the team.
Speaking about the play after the game Langley said, “We’ve been working really hard just from a mindset standpoint about what we can and can’t control in those moments. And I’ll tell you, that huddle was really that was a special huddle, because we were able to go in and discuss what we wanted to run, what we were all confident in. Everyone was able to have a voice, and we walked out confident that that was the play. And I just want to compliment them for that. I think this team is really growing in their leadership and their understanding of what their strengths are, and it was a cool moment.”
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The goal is always growth
Though the recent bout of losses is not ideal — no team ever wants to lose — the team is not concerned with wins and losses. Langley says that one of the most important things to this team is that they “really value growth.”
The streak-breaking win over Arizona was not thought about in win-loss terms at all. “We’re very just ‘This is today ,and this is the team we’re playing,’” Langley said after the match.
They even have a motto to embody that mindset for this season. “Our thing this season is ‘The joy is in the journey.’ And you know, there is joy every day with this group. They’re fun to coach and to learn with,” Langley said.
As a result, Langley and the team are very honest about the areas that need improvement.
“I think [defense and offense are] equally important,” Langley said. “We want to be efficient on both ends of the floor. I think we’re having a tempo problem, understanding when we should play fast and when we should play slow. We’re playing fast when we should play slow, slow when we should play fast sometimes. … And I’ve seen a lot of growth in that area, but I think we are having some moments where we continue to repeat some things that we know have hurt us, and I think that that slows our growth down.”
They also know that a lot of those things improve with experience. Langley’s mindset is: “We are a team with a little less experience than some teams that we play, and so every single time we take the floor we have incredible film to learn from. … Every single time we go on the floor, that experience is awesome for us.”
Schwartz was equally frank about what still needs improvement. “I just think the little details. We trust the process and everything we do. And I think really focusing on the little details of each and every aspect of the game is really critical.
“We saw that that’s one thing that we needed to grow on from past years, and I think we’ve done a great job with that and we’re still improving each and every day of those little things and trying to become the best we can in that part of basketball.”
Langley is confident in this culture-of-growth approach. “I think the most important thing is just that continued commitment to the process. We’re a team that believes that your daily disciplines become who you are. And so if we can show up every day and continue to work to be better in small areas, then the larger areas tend to kind of take care of themselves.”
A future full of excitement
This season’s freshman class was ranked 14th overall by ESPN, and so far it has shown promise.
Washington added some much-needed height with 6’6 forward Olivia Anderson, a four-star recruit from Washington State. Guard Chloe Briggs was rated No. 93 in the espnW Top 100, and guard Ari Long was rated No. 46. Savyia Sellers, a 5’7 guard, was named 2022-23 Gatorade Alaska High School Player of the Year before her arrival in Washington and was ranked at No. 28.
None are starters right now, but all have provided key, and often very energizing, efforts off the bench. And even more talent will be arriving in Montlake for the 2024-25 season.
Devin Coppinger is a 5’10 guard staying in state, and she rated No. 35 in the espnW Top 100 rankings. In a signing-day release, Langley called her “one of the best two-way guards in the country.”
Considered by some to be the biggest recruiting success (to date) of Langley’s time at Washington is Annika Soltau. A 6’4 forward from Freiburg, Germany, with professional and youth international experience, she has great presence in the paint but is also very versatile.
Despite being in her final season of eligibility, Schwartz is very excited about the future of this program. “I think the data and the stats don’t lie. I think every year that we are improving, and they’re only gonna get better after each year.”
The team may not be looking that far ahead this season, but take a peek at their upcoming schedule, and the Huskies are about to be run through the gantlet. They will face UCLA and USC on the road this weekend before returning home to play Utah, Colorado and Stanford. The immediate path is hard. But the future is bright.
“I think the people are really exciting,” Langley said. “The young people that play for this university are really special. They’re committed to being high character. They’re pursuing high-level academic interests and they want to play basketball at the highest level. They’re young women that are leaders on and off the floor. And while we are young, and while we are learning right now, we are also incredibly gifted, dynamic, incredible young women.
“I think it’s gonna be fun to watch them grow. And think that every time that we take the floor, you’ll see improvement and you’ll see a group of people who love each other and love this university and love playing together.”