Washington's Kelsey Plum became the leading scorer in NCAA-era women's basketball this season, breaking Jackie Stiles' 16-year-old record. That alone would be qualification for her to be named our espnW national player of the year.
But let's be frank: For the first time in a few years, this award wasn't a foregone conclusion before the season started. That was pretty much the case the last three years as Connecticut's Breanna Stewart was the best player on the best team.
This season, unbeaten UConn remains the best team. And you could debate which of UConn's tremendous trio -- Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams -- is the best. (It might depend on which day you ask that question. Collier and Samuelson shared American Athletic Conference player of the year honors, with Williams getting defensive POY.) The debate might be even difficult next season when transfer Azurá Stevens is added into the mix.
SEC player of the year A'ja Wilson of South Carolina was another strong candidate espnW considered for the national award. Wilson -- who, like the UConn trio, led her team to conference regular-season and tournament titles -- also will be back next season.
But Plum won't; she'll head to the WNBA this summer, taking her spectacular array of scoring skills -- and her level-headed, hard-working determination -- with her. While every player mentioned thus far shares those same qualities, they are things that helped Plum take not just her game but her program to unexpected heights.
That also figures into Plum being our national player of the year. Because as good as she was last season in a kind of storybook finish for the Huskies, she improved her game in every facet as a senior.
Washington had never before been to a Women's Final Four before Plum helped lead the seventh-seeded Huskies there last year. The closest the Huskies had been previously was the 2001 Elite Eight, when they lost to Stiles and Southwest Missouri State.
It's one of several connections or parallels between Plum and Stiles, both 5-foot-8 guards who wear (or wore) No. 10. Stiles was ultradisciplined in her workout regimen, and Plum is known for that, too. Both could hit shots from all over the court and could drive fearlessly into the lane.
Both faced a few rough times adjusting to team-leadership roles while they were underclassmen, but neither was ever going to back down or lose focus.
One difference: Plum is a lefty, but she is not predictable in how she will attack defenses. Attempt to face-guard her, and she -- along with coach Mike Neighbors -- will still find ways to get her free for a shot that's off before you can blink. Tried-and-true defense or junk defense, Plum has seen it and beat it all.
And along with fellow seniors Chantel Osahor and Katie Collier, Plum helped bring some swagger not just to Washington, but the Pac-12. Both Plum and our espnW freshman of the year, Sabrina Ionescu of Oregon, are Californians who stayed to play college ball on the West Coast, an area that's lost more than its share of talent to Eastern schools.
Plum was born into a family of athletes, and she has been driven for as long as she can remember. Plum's father was a football/baseball player in college; her mother and two sisters played collegiate volleyball. Plum could do well at a variety of sports, but her quick-trigger shot, accuracy and footwork are all perfect for basketball.
When Stiles was an assistant at Loyola Marymount, she placed a recruiting call to Plum, even though she knew she'd never get her. Now coaching at her alma mater, known as Missouri State, Stiles was proud to watch Plum break her record -- and do so with a spectacular show in the Huskies' regular-season finale on Feb. 25.
Plum scored 57 points -- the fifth-best single-game scoring performance in NCAA history -- to pass Stiles' mark of 3,393 points. It came in front of Plum's home crowd at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle.
The Huskies then were upset by Ionescu's Ducks 70-69 in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. Plum scored 34 points and stands at 3,431 in her career. She also has 1,013 this season, third behind Stiles (1,062) and Baylor's Odyssey Sims (1,054) for the single-season scoring record. Plum could own that, too, before she's done.
Plum is averaging 31.7 points per game, shooting 53.3 percent from the field overall, 42.9 percent from 3-point range and 88.8 percent from the foul line. Plum has become an even more efficient scorer, but that's not all there is to her game.
She also averages 5.1 rebounds -- grabbing those few that get away from Osahor (15.3 RPG), who leads the nation -- and a team-best 4.7 assists.
Plum obviously would have loved to add a Pac-12 tournament title to her résumé, but now her thoughts are focused on a return trip to the Final Four. And after that, we'll see how Plum performs at the next level. Based on what we've seen, she's up for the challenge.