The 6:15 a.m. daily sessions in high school were termed “The Breakfast Club,” but it’s a rare player who finds nourishment from a buffet of intense basketball drills that induce sweating and gasping for air.
Washington freshman guard Kelsey Plum is one of those players.
Once she decided her goal — make a living out of playing basketball — she began her drive toward it as a high-school underclassman. On Saturday, her mother Katie spotted a sign of that work materializing.
Washington led No. 18 California 68-65 with 13.4 seconds remaining. Plum, a 5-foot-9 left-hander, forced a loose-ball foul and stepped to the free-throw line.
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Watching the broadcast from her Poway, Calif., home, Katie saw the camera zoom in for a close-up of her daughter, who was beaming a smile through her red mouthguard. Plum kept smiling as she calmly hit two shots to seal the 70-65 upset.
Plum finished with 22 points in the regular-season finale, her 16th game of the season scoring 20 points or more.
“A free throw and a smile,” Katie Plum repeated of the flood of text messages she received from the San Diego community that has been following Kelsey since her father Jim nicknamed her “K-Money” for her clutch shooting as a young girl.
Plum set six UW freshman records, including points scored (605) and points in a game (38). She makes her Pac-12 tournament debut Thursday as the conference’s freshman of the year, averaging a team-high 20.9 points for the sixth-seeded Huskies.
“I did think there would be more of a learning curve,” said Terri Bamford, Plum’s coach at La Jolla (Calif.) Country Day School.
Bamford and assistant coach Barry Randle presided over “The Breakfast Club,” working on getting Plum’s three-point shot consistent, honing multiple moves to finish at the rim, developing a pro skill-set in handling the ball, offensive rebounding and, of course, free-throw shooting.
It worked to earn Plum McDonald’s and WBCA high-school All-America honors and a spot on USA basketball’s U-19 team, winning gold last summer. But transitioning this smoothly to college wasn’t anticipated.
“In high school you come across one or two players that can maybe play at the level Kelsey’s at,” Bamford said. “Everybody is like that in college, but she’s just hit the court running.”
An unbreakable bond was formed last summer with her new UW teammates over the same buffet of running, shooting, dribbling and strategizing drills Plum had worked on in “The Breakfast Club.”
“Even though she’s young, we have somebody that can put points on the board,” said junior guard Jazmine Davis, who averages 19.2 points. “We have a freshman that you can’t disrespect and sag off. You need to put one of your best defenders on her. I’m so proud … she plays like she’s a senior.”
With Plum and Davis returning next season, there’s a buzz around Washington hoops. It’s a future Plum didn’t imagine when she started her Breakfast Club.
Stanford was the dream destination for Plum. She even played on an AAU team sponsored by WNBA champion Candice Wiggins, a former Cardinal star.
“It became not an option, so I looked elsewhere,” Plum said of Stanford’s coaching staff turning its focus on other recruits.
Plum’s No. 10 jersey happened because it was the only one that fit when she started playing as a kid. Washington happened because of first-year coach Mike Neighbors and his plan for the program when he replaced Kevin McGuff in April 2013.
Polish any award or add up any flashy stat line and present it to Plum, if it’s not coupled with a win or a championship, she’s not interested. She continues to wake up daily around 5 a.m. and hit the gym before anything else.
Neighbors named Plum the team captain before the season for that mentality.
“There’s no reward in being named a captain,” said Neighbors, who brought in experts during the preseason to help Plum understand the true definition of the role.
“I’m not mad at anybody who said, ‘You can’t have a freshman captain who doesn’t know where your classrooms are,’ ” Neighbors said. “Yeah, you can. I knew what we had and I knew what she was made of and that it was going to be hard. But it’s part of the reason she chose here. She knew we were going to help her grow.”
Plum’s mother was concerned about her youngest of three daughters handling the pressure of being the example for the team, getting schoolwork done, playing up to the “off-the-chart standards” Plum sets for herself and not having the safety of home to cushion the rough days.
“She’s always been super independent, so she had that advantage,” Katie said. “But she’s had to struggle through a lot, like any freshman, and she’s coming out through the other side.”
No. 4 Stanford was the breakthrough. Plum scored a game-high 23 points but fouled out with 1:39 left. Her teammates closed out the win with Plum cheering on the bench.
“God has a plan and it’s very apparent that this was the perfect place with the perfect people,” Plum said after the win. “I would be lying if I said that (going to Stanford) wasn’t in my head at all. But it’s one of those things where, right after, you know you’re in the right spot.”
Now on the eve of her first Pac-12 tournament with her first milestone — an NCAA tournament berth — dangling like fruit on tree in front of her, Plum says she’s not amazed by her debut.
“I expect to win,” she said.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067
On Twitter @JaydaEvans