The Washington Huskies had just had the clock strike midnight on their Cinderella run to the program's first-ever Final Four appearance after coming out flat and losing 80-59 to a determined and ferocious Syracuse team who themselves were first time participants on college basketball's biggest stage.
In the Washington locker room, the feelings of both the agony of defeat and the pride of how far the banged up, shorthanded and unorthodox collection of players had come mixed together in the perfect emotional summation of the entire season. At the center of it all stood redshirt senior forward Talia Walton.
"These girls have changed my life," said Walton through tears after the loss. "Being at this university has changed my life. It's made me a better player and teammate. My coaches have a lot to do with that. It's been a blessing. I'm glad I chose the University of Washington back in 2011."
Having committed to UW five years earlier when the program was hardly an afterthought Walton, a product of nearby Federal Way, WA, stepped on campus alongside fellow local product Aminah Williams, and a criminally overlooked guard from California named Jazmine Davis, with the singular goal of returning a once proud program to prominence.
The trio would achieve that goal, but it was not without struggles. For Walton, who was forced to redshirt her freshman year due to chronic knee problems, those efforts included having four knee surgeries in as many years.
Many commentators stated she would never make it through four years of Division I basketball. What at the time seemed like a curse turned out to be one of the greatest blessings that could have happened to Walton and the UW program.
Flash forward to the Spring of 2015 and now seniors Aminah Williams and Jazmine Davis alongside the still junior Walton had rewritten the Washington record books. Davis had become the program's all-time leading scorer.
The 5' 10" Williams, who was recruited to play guard but forced to play in the post due to UW's severe lack of size, had become the program's all-time leader in rebounds, and Walton had become the all-time leader in blocks in less than three seasons. Along the way, the team had managed to add all American's Katie Collier and Kelsey Plum.
With Davis and Williams set to graduate, the program achieved the relevance that Walton, Williams and Davis had longed for four years earlier as the they qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.
Unfortunately, the Dawgs would be upset in the first round. With the graduation of two players as impactful as Williams and Davis, it looked like the team was still a ways from competing with the elite of the Women's basketball landscape.
The Huskies entered the 2015-‘16 season with a strong desire to improve upon the first round tournament exit of the year before. Leading the way was Walton, who erupted in the season opener for a career-high 33 points leaving no doubt that she was out for blood in her senior year.
Behind Walton's leadership and the blistering scoring of Kelsey Plum and dominant rebounding of Chantel Osahor, Washington would win their first four games by an average of 34 points.
Despite the early dominance, the team would face multiple challenges through the course of the season. In January, the loss of starting guard Brianna Ruiz to a torn ACL, and the transfer of rotation player Kahlia Lark left the team's rotation woefully short.
To make matters worse, Walton suffered through a month-long slump that saw the usually lethal scorer play the worst offense of her career including back-to-back games where she shot 4-20 and 4-21 against conference rivals Cal and Stanford. However, Walton and the Dawgs bounced back, saving their best basketball for when it mattered most.
As the PAC-12 tournament got underway, Washington sat at fifth in the conference standings. Now more than used to being the underdogs, they responded with an easy first round victory over Colorado.
It was in the second round the magic began as they upset the highly favored Stanford Cardinal. The win coming as the result of a corner three from none other than Walton. Despite losing a heartbreaker on the final possession against Oregon State in the next game, Washington and Walton had ensured a second straight trip the NCAA tournament.
The Dawgs first round matchup came against the Ivy League champion Penn. The game was hard fought from the opening tip with Washington only managing to score seven first quarter points. Despite the slow start, The Dawgs managed to outscore Penn in the remaining three-quarters to secure a 65-53 victory. The win earned them a matchup with second-seeded Maryland on the Terrapins home floor.
"They're a phenomenal team, from the outside in," Walton stated of the Terrapins before the matchup. "They're just great all around. Coach Brenda. [Frese] is an amazing coach."
Far from being intimidated, Washington fought to seize control of the game. Despite winning every quarter other than the second, the game would remain in the balance until there were just 86 seconds to play when once again Walton sank a dagger three to put the game out of reach as Washington secured the 74-65 Upset.
"All year, Talia has hit some of the biggest shots to win us games," said Plum. "There's no one more important or special that could've made that shot."
With the eyes of the nation now fixed on the Cinderella run of this ‘other Huskies,' team the media focused on the exploits of Plum and the unorthodox shooting touch of Chantel Osahor as the Dawgs prepared of yet another seemingly lopsided matchup. This time taking on third-seeded Kentucky on Kentucky's home floor.
The game would once again prove that Washington was for real. Plum and Osahor both lived up to their media billing. Plum scoring 23 points and dishing out seven assists while Osahor added 17 points of her own and ripped down 15 rebounds.
Meanwhile, the player who had led the team all season would finally put her mark on the minds of the American viewers as Walton poured in 30 points. Washington controlled the game from the outset and completed yet another astonishing victory by a final of 85-72.
"We know how good we are," said Osahor after the victory. "We have a chip on our shoulder, and we just know if we go play our game that the results will take care of itself. That's what we've been doing. That's what we're going to keep doing, and one game at a time. Now on to the Elite Eight."
The Elite Eight matchup would see a familiar foe return as the fourth-seeded Stanford Cardinal would again play the foil to the Huskies. This time, no heroic late game threes would be necessary as Washington would race to a 12-0 start and withstand every run Stanford threw at them as they secured an 85-76 win and the program's first-ever trip to the Final Four.
"Couldn't be more proud of our entire team," said UW head coach Mike Neighbors after the game. "These three besides me that have believed for a long, long time. Talia, who could have left and gone to any major school on the West Coast or probably the country when I got the job, and Chantel and Kelsey who had the opportunity down to the very end to make a change and they believed. For us to be here validates so many things for what we work on a daily basis."
Having earned a berth in the Final Four, the Dawgs traveled to Indianapolis to face off in a rematch against a Syracuse team they had lost to in November. In that game, Washington cut a 21 point first half deficit all the way down to 1 before falling 77-73. Unfortunately for the Dawgs, they would suffer the same poor start that they had in November, but this time, there would be no comeback.
The loss, however, was not for a lack of heart or effort from Walton. In what proved to be the final game of her legendary college career she turned in a performance for the ages hitting eight of nine threes to set a new Final Four record.
By the time the final buzzer sounded she had poured in 29 points, the rest of Washington finished with just 30. Despite her college career coming to an end, Walton focused instead on what her teammates had achieved.
"This team, this program is on the rise," she said. Reiterating why she had come to UW five long years prior. "(M)y main goal, when I got here, was to accomplish something like this. I went out giving it my all. I wanted to make sure I gave my team the best chance to win. Unfortunately, we didn't."
As the Huskies headed back to Seattle, Walton was given one last acknowledgment of just how special her performance and her career had been as she was named to the All-Final Four team.
Back home in Seattle, Walton began preparing for the next stage of her basketball career with her eyes fixed on the WNBA. Her historic performance in both the Final Four and throughout the NCAA tournament earned Walton an invitation to the WNBA draft; one of only 12 players given the honor.
"I was five years old when the WNBA first started," said Walton of being invited. "By the age of seven I learned that there was a possibility that I could play in the league. Ever since then that's all I've ever wanted to do."
At the draft, accompanied by coach Neighbors, Walton sat anxiously waiting for her name to be called. Finally, in the 3rd round, the Los Angels Sparks used the 29th pick to select her.
"I want to thank every teammate, coach, trainer, and mentor I've ever had that helped mold me into who I am now," she said as she entered the next chapter of her career. "It has not been easy, but it has been worth it. (I was ) Fueled by all the doubt that has been sent my way. I honored the process and made it happen. So today Lord I thank you."
Now, as the Sparks open training camp, the player who was written off by many before she ever played a college game stands poised to once again prove her doubters, and all of the teams who passed on drafting her wrong. It's something that Talia Walton is all too used to doing.