Kelsey Plum back for finale of stellar career at Washington

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2016, file photo, Washington head coach Mike Neighbors, right, throws his head back and laughs in response to a comment from Kelsey Plum as Neighbors is about to hand Plum a basketball commemorating her 2,000 career points, in Seattle. Plum was always going to return to Washington for her senior season, after getting the Huskies to the Final Four. But that didn't stop her from having a little fun and putting a little worry into the mind of Neighbors. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Elaine Thompson/AP

SEATTLE (AP) ��� For roughly six hours last April, Mike Neighbors twisted in the realm of the unknown over questions about his star player and her future at Washington.

It was the day after Washington lost to Syracuse in the national semifinals, concluding one of the most remarkable NCAA Tournament runs in recent memory. Neighbors was sticking around Indianapolis for a coaches convention while the rest of his team was on a plane back to Seattle.

That's when Neighbors phone rang. It was Renee Brown, then the WNBA chief of basketball operations, telling Neighbors that rumors were quickly spreading that Plum had changed her mind and was going to declare early for the WNBA.

“It was a story that spun out of control,” Neighbors recalled.

What followed were hours of unanswered text messages, emails and phone calls from Neighbors to anyone and everyone associated with the Washington program trying to confirm one way or another whether Plum was going to declare.

After more than six hours, with the team finally back in Seattle and Plum's phone charged enough to make a call, Neighbors heard from his star.

“I thought I'd mess with him a little bit,” Plum said. “I was like 'you know what coach, I just want to say I really appreciate everything you've done. It's been a great three years and I'm just grateful for the opportunity you've given me and the future.' And he was dead silent.

“And then I was like 'Come on, I'm coming back.' I think I got him a little bit.”

That story is a peek inside the relationship that has helped put No. 17 Washington back on the national landscape of women's college basketball. Plum is the star scorer who will likely rewrite the Pac-12 record books by the conclusion of her senior season. Neighbors is the coach who has found the right mix of sarcasm, support and constructive criticism to allow Plum to thrive.

There was never a doubt Plum would return to Washington for her senior season, in her mind. There was too much left to accomplish, even if she's already left a legacy by getting Washington to its first Final Four a season ago as a No. 7 seed and pulling off three consecutive upsets before losing to Syracuse in the national semifinals.

That wasn't enough. Not having an opportunity to play for a national title left Plum feeling hollow. It's why she's so adamant that last season is just that and should not linger into this year. And that's directed at more than just her teammates. Plum has already told Neighbors she doesn't want to see him wearing his Final Four ring around practice.

“Who am I to take that away from him?” Plum said. “But I think someone has to bring him back down to earth. If that's me, I'll be the bad guy.”

If Plum is going to be the “bad guy” it's only in her rabid determination to make sure Washington's reemergence as a contender in the Pac-12 lasts for more than the four years she was on campus. Sure, her legacy will remain in statistics, honors and hitting 145 straight free throws in practice last month that required Neighbors to get part of the Washington drumline to distract Plum and finally force her to miss.

Plum became the first player in Washington history to be named a preseason AP All-American. She needs just 319 points to tie a Pac-12 record for scoring and is 975 points shy of tying the NCAA scoring record. The first is almost certain to fall and the second record is obtainable if she remains healthy and the Huskies can make another deep postseason run.

That's where the drive comes from for Plum. She can't enjoy – won't enjoy – what Washington accomplished last season because it wasn't satisfying. Her Final Four ring is still in its box. And it will likely remain there until the conclusion of her college career.

“One of the things coach has tried to help me to work on – and it's a continuing struggle – is to enjoy that,” Plum said. “I think they scientifically say that if you don't recognize and pat yourself on the back it almost is like a counter effect. … I do struggle with that. I think you definitely have to look back and enjoy it and have a 'wow' moment.”