Plum paces Washington to 12-2 start

As a freshman last season, Kelsey Plum confesses, she sometimes felt "dumb," even if the stat sheet didn't show it.

"At least in terms of making plays," the University of Washington sophomore guard said. "I guessed a lot."

Plum seems to have found the right answers pretty quickly. The nation's second-leading scorer at 25.0 points a game, Plum is setting the tone for a Huskies team that is about to embark on its most defining weekend in a decade.

"We are finding a quiet confidence," said Washington second-year coach Mike Neighbors.

He saw it in the days before his team played then-No. 5 Texas A&M before the turn of the new year. Washington won that game 70-49, one of the most unexpected results of the young season.

"A couple of players came into my office before the A&M game and said to me, 'We've watched the film and we think we are as good as they are,'" Neighbors said. "I think every great team needs a little swagger; it's kind of the last piece of the puzzle for a program that's trying to find its place. They aren't intimidated anymore."

The 12-2 Huskies -- who had an 11-game winning streak before last weekend's loss at Arizona State -- will need all that confidence this weekend when they host Stanford and Cal, the toughest twosome in the Pac-12 in recent years.

"This is as big a weekend as there is in our league," said Neighbors, whose team defeated the Chiney Ogwumike-led Cardinal 87-82 last season in Seattle. "We got bruised a little bit against Arizona State."

Only five days after handily beating Texas A&M, the Huskies hit the road to open the Pac-12 and fell hard at Arizona State 62-48, their lowest output of the season. Not coincidentally, Plum was held to 17 points, a merely mortal night for the player who was averaging 30.6 points over the first five contests of the season.

"We came out a little soft," Plum said. "I personally didn't do a good job taking care of the ball (six turnovers), and I thought we battled back in the second half, but we dug ourselves too big a hole."

Plum -- who set a school record in the Nov. 14 season opener with a 45-point effort in a loss to Oklahoma -- came into this season prepared to take a leading offensive role. She worked tirelessly on her game throughout the summer, Neighbors calling her his "most improved player."

The kind of player who now finding herself in the national spotlight. Plum, already on the watch list for the Naismith and Wooden awards and the Wade Trophy, was profiled by HBO's "Real Sports" show for a segment that will likely air next month.

"To say she's 'most improved' makes me sound like kind of an idiot considering the caliber of player she is," Neighbors said, chuckling. "But she is. What we did is we took some things away, stripped them down for her. We had her focus specifically on some things and I think as a result, her shot quality is better and her shooting percentage is at unprecedented levels."

Plum is shooting 49.3 percent from the floor, 41.8 percent from the 3-point line and 89.1 percent from the free throw line. She already holds the school record for single-season scoring (712 points as a freshman) and is the fastest Washington player to reach 1,000 career points.

"To say she's 'most improved' makes me sound like kind of an idiot considering the caliber of player she is. But she is. … Her shot quality is better and her shooting percentage is at unprecedented levels." UW coach Mike Neighbors on sophomore Kelsey Plum

She got off to an incredibly hot start, putting up the highest offensive numbers in the country through the first month and a half of the season. What happened next, however, was predictable. Teams began to double-team and face-guard Plum, trapping her with the ball to keep her from burying them. She has responded by rebounding and passing and giving teammates like Jazmine Davis and Talia Walton the opportunities to shoot. Plum has 52 assists (3.7 APG) to only 41 turnovers.

"What makes her so special is that she doesn't have to score to be impactful," Neighbors said. "She holds herself to a really high standard."

Plum said she feels much more comfortable than a year ago.

"I know what to expect," Plum said. "I have a good understanding of good shots and bad shots, and sometimes you just have to learn those lessons on the floor. I'm grateful I was able to learn them early."

Washington has not played in the NCAA tournament since 2007. But the Huskies look primed right now to end that run, particularly if Plum continues her stellar play.

Plum is particularly motivated by the opportunity to play against some of the top guards in the country in the Pac-12. The list is long and impressive -- including Stanford's Amber Orrange and Lili Thompson, Cal's Brittany Boyd, Oregon State's Sydney Wiese and Washington State's Lia Galdeira and Tia Presley -- but Plum and Davis also have to be regarded among the conference's best backcourts.

"It's really hard, because I'm friends with a lot of them, but it's fun to compete against people who are real ballers, and I wouldn't want to have it any other way," Plum said. "These are All-American, All-Pac-12-type players and they are going to get the best of you and you will get the best of them. Why else would you play?"