Why Washington's Kelsey Plum never envisioned a trip to Final Four

Plum fuels Washington (1:58)

LaChina Robinson and Michelle Smith break down guard Kelsey Plum and how her game has elevated the Washington Huskies. (1:58)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kelsey Plum's self-described "leap of faith" has carried her here, a place she admits she didn't really expect to be.

"Being honest, I didn't envision this," Plum said Saturday, a day before she leads her team onto the court against Syracuse in the national semifinals, a matchup of two first-time Final Four participants battling for the Cinderella mantle in this tournament of surprises. "When you start the season, some people say 'We're going to win it all.' I've never said that. And I think the cool thing about this team, is that this year, we didn't set any goals. Which is kind of ironic."

The Huskies didn't set any benchmarks. They didn't say they would win the Pac-12. Or make the NCAA tournament. The next thing -- the next game, really -- was the only thing.

"I think it's really helped us," Plum said. "It's been like, 'Who do we play? Maryland in Maryland? OK, let's do it.' "

It's the narrow view that actually has helped Plum see the bigger picture.

The best scorer in the land has learned that despite her many offensive gifts, she does not have to do it all. In fact, she shouldn't if her team is to succeed.

There was a stretch in the middle of this season in which the Huskies went 7-7, head coach Mike Neighbors saying that his team was too reliant on Plum to do all the scoring and it was costing them wins. They have lost only two games since.

Yet even as she has become a better passer, a better defender and a better leader, she has still put up some of the best numbers in women's college basketball.

The Huskies' appearance in the Final Four is both a team achievement and the culmination of a stellar junior season for Plum. She ranks third in the nation in scoring at 26.2 points a game, leading the country in total points (943).

"In the past, she would try to shoot over three people, and now she's finding the open person and our offense is so much harder to defend." Washington senior forward Talia Walton

She is 25 points away from breaking the Pac-12's single-season scoring record held by Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike. She has made more free throws that any player in the country this season.

"She certainly understands what it takes to win at this level," Neighbors said. "When she is good, she is great at it. The things she does to empower her teammates. She touches every person on our team now, where in the past it may have only been a couple of kids. But now she really seeks other people out."

Senior forward Talia Walton said it has been "a journey" for Plum.

"She said it at one point, once she realized she can't do this by herself, she started to see our team succeed," Walton said. "She obviously demands a lot of respect and attention on the court. In the past, she would try to shoot over three people, and now she's finding the open person and our offense is so much harder to defend."

Plum makes no bones about the fact that she was looking for a place to shine from the get-go. She chose Washington -- not the most obvious landing spot for a top recruit.

Kelsey's mother, Katie Plum, called Kelsey's choice to go to Washington out of La Jolla Country Day -- the high school program that also yielded Wade Trophy winner Candice Wiggins of Stanford -- a "brave choice."

"She had very specific things she was looking for," Katie Plum said. "There was a method to the madness. We prayed about it every day. But it was a little bit risky."

Plum's choice got even more brave when Kevin McGuff, the coach who recruited her to Seattle, left for Ohio State.

Washington returned Plum's letter of intent and told her she was released to reconsider. At that point, Katie Plum remembers, Kelsey was about to leave for a USA Basketball trip to Lithuania. "She had like two-and-a-half weeks to decide what she wanted to do," Katie Plum said. "They said, 'You can look around and return this to us if you want.' "

Neighbors, the new coach who was McGuff's lead assistant and had led the recruitment of Plum, made his pitch.

And Plum's mother crossed her fingers.

"She picked it once, and I wanted to see her pick it again," Katie Plum said.

Neighbors said it was "scary" to entertain the possibility that she might not sign. But ultimately, it was not that suspenseful.

"I told her I got the job and she texted me, 'Coach, you stay, I stay.' I kept that screenshot," Neighbors said.

Plum said she knew she was coming to a program that hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2007, one that hadn't competed for a conference title since 2001, had never produced an All-American.

"My mom and I discussed it a lot. She said to me, 'You know if you pick a team like Washington, you probably won't play in a national championship game,' " Plum said. "I know I wanted to be able to play right away. I wanted to be able to have a long leash and be creative and get better. Some freshmen go to big programs and play 15 minutes a game. That's not me. I don't want to do that. I did pick Washington knowing that it would give me other things."

Plum's impact was immediate. She was named a team captain as a freshman, and immediately became the Huskies' go-to player. She averaged 20.9 points her first season, 21.8 points as a sophomore.

"I named her a captain as a freshman. That's not fun for any kid and I knew it wasn't going to be fun," Neighbors said. "Would I do it again? Absolutely. But what she had to go through and learn through that stage, you can't tell a kid. They have to experience it. She was our hardest worker from day one. She also had to become our best leader."

Walton said Plum had a difficult time being handed a leadership role "from the jump."

"Being a captain is a title you definitely have to earn," Walton said. "Her most growth has been off the court. Being able to have people come to her and tell her things and be able to respond. A good leader has to have that, the ability to accept the input of the people that are following you. She's definitely become more receptive."

"She touches every person on our team now, where in the past it may have only been a couple of kids. But now she really seeks other people out." Washington coach Mike Neighbors

Even in this season, in which she scored at least 30 points in a game 10 times, it was hard to foresee this ending for a Huskies team that lost 10 games, finished fifth in the Pac-12 and entered the tournament with a No. 7 seed.

Yet, thanks largely to Plum's offensive aggression and the ability to find open teammates when defenses rightfully focus on her, Washington is here, in this new place.

Katie Plum admits sheepishly that she packed a small carry-on bag for the trip to Lexington for the regional. Read into that what you want.

"I mean, look at the size of the bag I packed," Katie Plum said. "I anticipated..." She didn't finish that thought. "I am surprised we are here, but not the way they are playing."

Kelsey said she passes no judgment on her mom for the pack job.

"She's a smart woman," Kelsey said. "She's very realistic. I don't blame her."

Katie Plum isn't the only one who made her way to Indianapolis to see Kelsey play for a title. A whole lot of relatives are on the way. From Ohio and Florida and California and Puerto Rico. They will be in the stands at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday. Included in the group is Kelsey's big sister Lauren, who plays professional volleyball in Puerto Rico. Lauren arrived at 2 a.m. on Friday, slept late and then was in the stands, hiding under a hooded sweatshirt while Kelsey was named a WBCA All-American -- the first in program history -- trying to stay hidden to preserve the surprise until after practice.

Plum will play on her sport's biggest stage Sunday night for a chance to play for a title. To have that opportunity now, after reconciling that it probably wouldn't happen, makes her laugh.

"I'm laughing. I'm still laughing," Plum said. "Who knew?"