Not once this season has Kelsey Plum been held to single digits.
It’s rare that the nation’s third-leading scorer has even been held in the teens.
Opponent after opponent has tried — and failed — to stop Washington’s 5-foot-8 junior scoring dynamo.
The Huskies and their star player have seen just about every defense known to man (or woman) thrown at them.
“Unless somebody invents something new, we’ve seen it all,” said Coach Mike Neighbors, whose Washington team will face Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
“We adopted a motto at the beginning of the year: Just make them wrong. Whatever they throw at us, let’s make them wrong. We’ve got plans for every single type of thing to do, and we’ve seen it, and we’ve simulated it in practice over and over and over.”
Kentucky doesn’t seem to have any new-fangled plan in place to stop Plum, who had 32 points in an upset at No. 2 seed Maryland on Monday night. But it has a healthy respect for what the California guard is able to do.
“Kelsey does a little bit of everything,” UK senior Janee Thompson said of Plum, who averages 26.3 points a game. “She’s a really talented player; she has a crazy skill set. She can score in a multitude of ways, so it’s going to take a team effort to guard her. She can shoot the three; she can really get going in transition.”
Plum’s 287 made field goals this season are the fifth most in the nation. She’s made 73 three-pointers, 18 more than UK’s most prolific outside shooter.
But Plum makes her living at the free throw line, attempting 276 this season, the most in the country, and making 247 of them, also tops in the country.
“She can handle the ball so well, and she is such a smart player that if you don’t pay attention to your defensive discipline and your positioning, she can draw some fouls, and she can do it off the dribble,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Plum, Washington’s all-time leading scorer. Her 2,296 career points is on pace to be one of the top scorers in NCAA history. “She’s very, very good, and we have tremendous respect for her ability.”
Rarely has Kentucky with its minimalist seven- or eight-player rotation this season faced a team with even fewer regular players, but the Cats have met their match in Washington.
The Huskies have only six players who have played in all 34 games this season and one of those, 6-foot-3 senior Mathilde Gilling, injured her knee in the last game and is listed as day-to-day. She has not practiced this week.
So that leaves Washington with four different players who average 30 minutes or more a game. But the Huskies argue it’s made them a more cohesive group.
“We play really well together and we have a great chemistry,” said leading scorer Plum, who averages 38.1 minutes a game, fifth most in the country.
“It’s not nothing new for us. … We’re playing on adrenaline. We have a lot of fun with it. I figured honestly it keeps the game flowing and it allows for things to kind of work together in the game.”
By contrast, UK has only two players, guards Thompson and Makayla Epps, averaging more than 30 minutes a game.
‘Two of our biggest fans’
It’s not often that a coach from a school 2,400 miles away can provide a reasonable detour to a local bus driver, but that happened this week for Washington’s Neighbors.
“There was a backup on New Circle getting off on the exit, so I told him if you just shoot on right past, if you take a right down there, we come in the back way to Double Tree,” Neighbors said, adding that it’s “strange to be on a road trip and know exactly where you are.”
Neighbors is well acquainted with Lexington because his longtime girlfriend, Amy Ratliff, lives here with her twin sister, Holly. To make matters weirder, the sisters are regular workers at men’s basketball home games in Rupp Arena.
“It’s neat to be here and playing,” Neighbors said, pointing out the sisters in their purple and gold shirts Thursday. “They’re two of our biggest fans.”
Normally at the scorer’s table at Rupp Arena for games, the Ratliff twins will be behind the Washington bench Friday night. The players are getting a kick out of the fun coincidence.
“It’s a lot of fun,” senior forward Talia Walton said. “It felt like it wasn’t even a road trip when we got to the hotel because we had little goodie bags in there and cards saying ‘Go Dawgs’ on them.
“We know they’ve still got a little blue inside their heart, but it’s nice to see them supporting us this weekend.”
Other news and notes
Before he met with the media and held practice, UK’s Mitchell spent his morning with Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who proclaimed this “Blue and White Weekend” for the women’s NCAA Tournament regional in town. The mayor urged citizens to wear blue and white throughout the weekend.
▪ There will be a pregame Cat Walk on Friday around 5 p.m. in the lobby of the Hilton downtown. The team is expected to depart the team hotel around 5:20 p.m. and the bus will be at the Broadway entrance. UK encouraged fans to gather next to the fountain in the lobby.