On February 25, 2017, University of Washington guard Kelsey Plum (b. 1994) becomes the leading scorer in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women's basketball history. She does it with a 57-point game -- 13 more than her previous best -- to break the 16-year-old record. She caps her career by being unanimously selected as an Associated Press first-team All-American and the consensus choice for national player of the year.
For several weeks, as her senior season drew to a close, it seemed more and more likely that Plum would surpass the NCAA career scoring record of 3,393 set by Jackie Stiles (b. 1978) of Southwest Missouri State in 2001, but few if any expected it would happen when it did. Plum needed at least 54 points to do it that day against the University of Utah. Considering she averaged about 31 points a game, the crowning of a new all-time-scoring record-holder figured to be at least another game away.
Making It Tough
A crowd of 6,775 was in the stands at UW's Alaska Airlines Arena to see the Huskies play Utah in their final game of the regular season. Like most Washington opponents, the Utes concentrated on trying to contain Plum, who was leading the nation in scoring. They kept one of their best defenders on her at all times, often double-teamed her, and inevitably had at least one taller player stationed under the basket to discourage her from driving for layups. She rose to the challenge with an array of long-range and inside shots.
Plum scored 10 points in the first quarter and had 22 at the half -- better than her usual pace but not record-setting. The Utes were making her work hard, and even though Washington was ranked 11th in the country, the unranked visitors trailed by only five at the break. Adding to the drama, Washington's Chantel Osahor, the nation's leading rebounder and the team's second-leading scorer, was in foul trouble. With Utah keeping the score close, the Huskies needed Plum to keep piling up points. She had 38 by the end of the third quarter. The unlikely was beginning to seem possible.
Osahor fouled out with eight minutes remaining, and the building's attention was riveted on Plum. The Huskies and their coach, Mike Neighbors (b. 1969), sensed history was in the making. They made sure Plum would get her shots. Plum said:
"My teammates wanted me to be super-aggressive. They kept feeding me the ball and coach kept calling my number. I wasn't exactly sure like points-wise, but I knew that it was getting closer and closer" ("Plum for the Ages").
Most of the crowd didn't know how close it was either. There was no mention of the record by the public address announcer, but fans were guessing it was about to fall. With each Plum basket, the arena got louder.
"Utah knew what we were doing. They knew we were going to set a ball screen at some point in time, and Kelsey was going to drive it. And you still can't stop it ... " Neighbors said ("Plum for the Ages"). Utah's coach, Lynne Roberts, concurred: "I was really proud of our team and we answered, but Washington has a player who is really unstoppable in Kelsey Plum and she took over in the fourth quarter." ("Utes Play...").
With just under five minutes to play, Plum got the ball, drove toward the basket and scored with a scoop shot, giving her 53 points and a tie with Stiles' career mark. Seconds later Plum had the ball again and the crowd was on its feet. Utah's 6-foot-3 Wendy Anae was in the way, but Plum stopped and fired a left-handed shot that went in. An official announcement was still a minute or so away, but the stands were bedlam. The record was hers.
Neighbors took his star out of the game with 44 seconds remaining, so the crowd could give her another, longer standing ovation. She had scored 19 of her team's 22 fourth-quarter points, not only breaking the record but leading Washington to an 84-77 victory. She had made 19 of 28 shots from the field, including 8 of 11 from three-point range, and 13 of 16 free throws. Her 57-point total was the most ever scored by any player, man or woman, at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion (as the Huskies' 90-year-old home arena, still commonly referred to as Hec Edmundson or Hec Ed, had been officially named in 2011). It also was a Pac-12 Conference record and just three points shy of the highest score in NCAA women's basketball history.
Plum had grown up in Poway, California, northeast of San Diego. Because it was Seniors Day, she had a contingent of friends and family there to see her play and unexpectedly witness the record performance. Among them were her high school coaches, Terri Bamford and Berry Randle. Bamford said afterward, "As it got closer, I got teary eyed ... because I was thinking, 'This is really going to happen,'" and Randle, who called Plum the hardest-working player he had ever seen, recalled "We had a conversation when she was a freshman about her being the best player ever. To see her get to that point where all the work was paying off -- it was exhilaration. It was electric" (Leonard).
Those closest to her knew how long she had worked on her basketball skills. Her mother, Katie Plum, said that as a 9- or 10-year-old her daughter kept a notebook showing how many free throws she shot and made each day out in the driveway, adding "She had her own road she was carving. ... We just got out of the way" (Leonard).
Plum led the Pac-12 Conference in scoring both as a sophomore and as a junior. She also led the nation as a junior. Even so, she worked to be better as a senior. During the offseason, she modified her diet and lengthened her workouts to improve her strength and stamina. Aided by UW assistant coach Morgan Valley, she worked on shooting from all kinds of game-type situations -- off the dribble, off screens, off passes without hesitating, and off all-out sprints. The goal was to make 500 shots a day.
The results were remarkable. As a senior, Plum increased her field-goal shooting percentage from .405 to .529 and her three-point shooting percentage from .333 to .428. She outscored the nation's next-highest player by about 5 points per game. Doris Burke, an ESPN analyst who covered the professional National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), as well as college games, put Plum's skills in context:
"To me, her game is reminiscent of what I see at the NBA level. She has solid athleticism and speed, but the most important thing is her understanding of the nuance of the game. She understands how to mix speed, how to keep the defense off balance, how the slightest movement in body direction will get a defender leaning. Her ability to put pressure on a defense from the moment the ball finds her hands is a thing of beauty" (Leonard).
Player of the Year
After the Utah game, Plum expressed relief that the record quest was behind her. She also paid tribute to those around her:
"This is an individual record, but it's broken by a village of people. It's broken by every teammate that I've ever had, every coach that I've ever played for, for every trainer or doctor, my parents, my sisters, my brother. It's this university, it's the support I've been given. I'm very grateful, but it's not something I take on myself" ("Plum Sets Record").
Plum played four more games in her college career -- one in the Pac-12 conference tournament and three in the NCAA tournament. She finished with two more NCAA records -- most free-throws made in a career (912) and most points in a season (1,109). She was the first player in Pac-12 Conference history, male or female, to score 3,000 points. Her final four-year total at Washington was 3,527 -- a career mark 134 points higher than any other player in the 35-year history of NCAA-sanctioned women's basketball. Among all players, men and women, she ranked second only to Pete Maravich (3,667).
Plum and Osahor, who had led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament's Final Four for the first time as juniors, made it to the Sweet Sixteen as seniors. They were rewarded by being named Associated Press (AP) and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-Americans. Plum was the only unanimous AP choice and the first Washington woman to make AP's All-America first team. Osahor was a second-team AP selection. Both also landed on the 10-player WBCA All-America team.
Then came an avalanche of honors for Plum. Besides being recognized as the Pac-12's top player, she was named national player of the year by the AP, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and women's sports cable television channel espnW. She swept the available national awards, getting the prestigious John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith and Wade trophies for player of the year, the Dawn Staley Award for top guard, and the Nancy Lieberman Award for top point guard.
Award namesakes Dawn Staley (b. 1970) and Nancy Lieberman (b. 1958), both of them basketball Hall of Fame members, were among those heaping praise on Plum as she visited six cities in 10 days to pick up her award hardware. Lieberman put her in the company of all-time greats and told her, "You're not only a record-holder, but you've changed how the game is being played" ("Plum Adds Three More"). Staley, coach of 2017 NCAA champion South Carolina, placed the Washington guard in a bigger context:
"For four years Kelsey has been exactly the kind of ambassador women's basketball needs. She's exciting, she's talented, and most of all she's driven. ... No one is more deserving of this award because no one has worked harder for it. Kelsey is the type of player young girls around the world can look up to, and we're all looking forward to seeing what she does next" ("Plum Picks Up ...").
Not surprisingly, given her collegiate accomplishments, Kelsey Plum was the No. 1 pick when the WNBA draft was held a few days after she finished collecting her awards. Selected by the San Antonio Stars, she became the first Huskies basketball player, female or male, ever to be drafted No. 1.