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Interaction with fans has boosted interest in tournament-bound Washington women

Washington’s Kelsey Plum reacts after scoring against Utah in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, in Seattle. Plum surpassed Jackie Stiles to become the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader with a career-best 57 points in the final regular season game of her career, leading No. 11 Washington past Utah 84-77 on Saturday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Washington’s Kelsey Plum reacts after scoring against Utah in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, in Seattle. Plum surpassed Jackie Stiles to become the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader with a career-best 57 points in the final regular season game of her career, leading No. 11 Washington past Utah 84-77 on Saturday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Kelsey Plum is already the most successful basketball player in University of Washington history, and a top candidate to win the Naismith Award as the best player in the country.

She leads the nation in scoring. She makes regular appearances on ESPN. And yet her coach, Mike Neighbors, jokingly fears that her autograph might not be worth much in the coming years.

Supply is too high, he said.

“Because there’s millions out there. She’s given millions,” Neighbors said. “They’ll be very treasured, don’t get me wrong, but sheer value, it’s not going to be, like, a rare commodity.”

Plum and the Huskies – the nation’s 12th-ranked team and a likely first- and second-round host when the NCAA Tournament begins next weekend – have flooded the market with their signatures. After each home game, win or lose, players sit at tables in different corners of the Hec Edmundson Pavilion floor and sign autographs for 10 minutes, though Neighbors said they had to push that to 15 this season.

One of Neighbors’ good friends, Louisville coach Jeff Walz, had been doing it for years, and told him it helped boost attendance and provided valuable interaction with the community. After being promoted to head coach at UW four seasons ago, Neighbors decided to try it.

“We knew when we got here six years ago (first as an assistant) that Seattle was a sports town, and this place used to be filled (with) 7-or-8,000 people for women’s basketball,” Neighbors said. “But we hadn’t seen that yet. We knew we had to produce a winner on the court, but we also knew we had to do some things to engage the fans. That was one of the first things we came up with.”

Plum, of course, draws the biggest crowds, and demand is also high for fan favorite Chantel Osahor, the nation’s leading rebounder and an All-America candidate (“Chantel can’t walk downtown without people stopping her,” Neighbors said). And while the time limit might allegedly be 10 or 15 minutes, Neighbors said that’s flexible. Sometimes, players sign for a few minutes, go change their clothes, come back and sign some more.

In January, after UW lost a close game to Stanford in front of the first sellout crowd in program history, Neighbors said Plum signed autographs for roughly two hours.

“She took – like she always does – too much responsibility for the loss,” Neighbors said. “She said, ‘I wasn’t about to leave a kid who came to watch us lose.’ ”

Neighbors tells of lines for Plum “up to the mezzanines.” After their Dec. 27 home victory over Washington State, the UW women’s basketball Twitter account posted a photo of a line that it said “nearly wrapped around the building.” In February, it tweeted a photo of a young boy with Plum’s autograph on his forehead.

One season removed from the first Final Four appearance in program history, Washington seems to have one of the most popular teams in program history. Plum and Osahor form the face of the franchise, so to speak, and the team’s entertaining, up-tempo playing style – combined with its 27-5 overall record – is doing wonders for attendance. Last season, UW’s largest home crowd was 3,813. This season, eight of the Huskies’ nine Pac-12 home games drew more than that, including the 10,000-seat sellout against Stanford and a crowd of 6,775 for the regular-season finale against Utah – during which Plum scored 57 points to break the NCAA women’s career scoring record, perhaps the most brilliant basketball performance in Hec Ed history.

They also drew a crowd of 9,686 – officially announced as a sellout – to KeyArena for last week’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against Oregon.

Washington’s improbable Final Four run placed the Huskies among different company this season. That has its challenges, too. As Neighbors is fond of saying, “Things are different when the deer has the gun.” Look at the way Oregon celebrated – with a dog pile at halfcourt – when it beat the Huskies in last week’s Pac-12 tournament, he says.

“That’s new for us,” Neighbors said. “And that’s a compliment to our kids. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy. We’re 27-5, and I’m telling you, after all five of those losses, we had people wanting to know, ‘Hey what’s wrong?’ ”

Despite that defeat, there should be little wrong with Washington’s NCAA Tournament prospects. Neighbors feels strongly the Huskies will receive a No. 3 seed – “worst-case scenario, maybe a 4,” he said – which would allow them to host their first two games, assuming they win the first.

The Huskies are 16-1 at home this season.

“We’ve also had some massive crowds here,” Osahor said, noting UW’s credentials as a host candidate. “They see that Seattle support. That all counts.”

“Just having that atmosphere when you come out of that tunnel,” Neighbors said, “it’s worth a few points.”

And worth every signature.


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