After Kevin McGuff abruptly left UW for Ohio State in 2013, Kelsey Plum nearly didn’t come to the Huskies. Her bond with Mike Neighbors (and her word) kept her in the program, and nearly three years later, Washington finds itself in the Sweet 16.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — What has become for Washington star guard Kelsey Plum the perfect player-coach pairing almost didn’t come together.
A McDonald’s All-American from Poway, Calif., Plum already had signed a letter of intent with the Huskies and was just a few months away from moving to Seattle when she was blindsided by the abrupt departure of then-UW coach Kevin McGuff in April 2013.
She remembers getting pulled out of a high-school class to be told the news: McGuff’s leaving for Ohio State.
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“I lost it. I didn’t know what to do,” she recalled this week, as the No. 7-seed Huskies (24-10) prepare for the Sweet 16 matchup Friday against No. 3-seed Kentucky (25-7) at Rupp Arena.
The day after McGuff’s departure to Ohio State was announced, Plum was granted a release from her UW letter of intent. College recruiters from all over started calling again.
“I tried to turn off my phone for like a week because I was just so sad,” she said. “I felt like I got broken up with.”
Enter Mike Neighbors, who as UW’s top assistant had helped lead the effort to recruit Plum. To this day, Neighbors has saved his text-message exchange with her from those tense and tenuous few days after McGuff left. They were a pivotal few days — the most pivotal — for the program and its future.
The most important message came from Plum: “You stay. I stay,” she wrote Neighbors on April 16, 2013. Then, just three days after McGuff’s departure was announced, UW promoted Neighbors to his first head-coaching job.
When he knew he had gotten the job, Neighbors texted Plum: “Are you a person of your word?”
She was, and she decided to re-sign with the Huskies.
She’s glad she did, and the Huskies are too: Plum needed less than three seasons to break the school’s career scoring record.
Now here the Huskies are this week, coming off the biggest upset of the NCAA women’s tournament by beating Maryland on Monday, and playing in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.
“He kept his word, and I said I’ll keep mine,” she said. “It’s worked out. It’s the best decision I ever made.”
As the player-coach relationship has grown, so too has the team’s success.
“I want to play at the next level and I knew if I played for someone that gave me such a long leash and a green light to be creative and make things happen — that’s what I wanted,” said Plum, named Thursday as one of 15 finalists for the Wade national player of the year trophy. “And he’s been absolutely the backbone for me. I don’t think a lot of kids can say that they shoot more in college than they did in high school. … I feel like the only time he really gets on my case is when I pass up shots or I’m not aggressive.
“I get a lot of credit for the things I’ve been able to, quote-unquote, break records or score,” she continued, “but if you really look at it, I’m in the perfect system with the perfect players and the perfect coach, and sometimes things happen, right? All I gotta do is work hard and try to put the ball in the hole, but he’s the one that’s allowed me to do that and allowed me the opportunity.”
Neighbors was sitting next to her when she said that, all of which, he said, means “everything” to him as a new head coach.
“The fact I’ve had (her) my first three years is going to make it tough to continue on (when she graduates after next season),” he said.
First, Plum and the Huskies hope to make things tough on Kentucky.
|Pac-12 career scoring leaders|
|With her senior season still ahead, Kelsey Plum has a good chance to shatter the Pac-12 career scoring record:|
|1. Chiney Ogwumike||Stanford (2010-14)||2,737|
|2. Candice Wiggins||Stanford (2004-08)||2,629|
|3. Nnemkadi Ogwumike||Stanford (2008-12)||2,491|
|4. Lisa Leslie||USC (1990-94)||2,414|
|5. Kelsey Plum||Washington (2013-present)||2,352|
|6. Tanja Kostic||Oregon State (1992-96)||2,349|