SALT LAKE CITY — A pattern has emerged within the University of Utah women's basketball program, one that stretches from Canada to the University of Utah to the WNBA.
It has become a fairly well-worn path, first traveled by the likes of Kim Smith Gaucher and Shona Thorburn, two Canadian nationals who excelled at Utah in preparation for successful professional and Olympic careers.
The latest Ute athlete to walk this line is forward Michelle Plouffe, an Alberta native who has etched her name in the Utah records book and made noise on the national scene while donning her Utes gear.
Now, as she prepares for the 2014 WNBA draft, which takes place Monday at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., Plouffe, just like those before her, is eyeing the next stage — the professional stage — of her already-accomplished career.
"That Canadian legacy that was here already," Plouffe said. "I just wanted to contribute to and carry it on."
It was the lasting aura of Smith and Thorburn, along with the presence of her former high school teammate and current Utah forward Taryn Wicijowski, that attracted Plouffe to Utah. It was her athletic ability — and coachability — that attracted the Utes' coaching staff to her.
"If you could just take a picture of what you want your program to be, of a person to epitomize your program, you would just take a snapshot of her," said Utah coach Anthony Levrets. "The work ethic she has is crazy. I’ve never seen a kid in a gym as much as she’s in there. You have to kick her out. You have to make her take time off."
Plouffe's natural athleticism, combined with that intense work ethic, have landed her on multiple Utah all-time lists, including a school-record 1,155 rebounds. She is second in school history with 2,100 career points, and one of just three players to ever score more than 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds.
Plouffe is also second in school history with 149 career blocks, tied for second in rebounding average with 8.8 per game, and fourth in career scoring average at 15.8 points per game. She holds the school record in field goals attempted (1,863), is sixth overall in offensive rebounds (276), and finished her career eighth in attempted 3-pointers (488).
"When she got here, she could not play in the paint at all," Levrets said. "She was a perimeter player, she was a two-guard in a four-man’s body.
"The ability to play inside, to defend inside, her passing ability from the post out, and then instead of just always playing with the ball in her hands, playing without the ball in her hands, which is what she’s going to have to do at the next level, being an on-ball screener, popping and roll-replace stuff — she’s just gotten better at everything."
Plouffe was named an all-Pac-12 selection all three years she competed in the league, and was named Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year her first year at the U.
Entering her final season at Utah, Plouffe was included on the Naismith Award Early Season Watch List and was named to the Sporting News Preseason All-American Third Team. At the end of the year, she was listed as an NCAA Senior CLASS Award nominee and, for the second consecutive season, an Associated Press honorable mention All-American.
"The last four years have been an amazing experience for me," Plouffe said. "On and off the court, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown up a little bit, and I’ve met some people that will stay in my life for a really long time."
Now, with her college career behind her, she turns her attention to the next phase. And, while it's true most collegiate athletes go professional in something other than sports, Plouffe is intent on keeping basketball at the center of her life, which is why she has spent her time and energy since Utah was eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament preparing for her post-college career.
"I’ve talked to one general manager that told me she thought she’s a top-five pick," Levrets said. "She’s ranked anywhere from eight to 14 on most boards. It’ll depend on needs and who’s drafting. It’s a really post-light draft, so I think she has a really good opportunity to end up in a great situation."
From there, Plouffe will explore the possibility of playing with the Canadian National Team again and then playing in Europe for the rest of the year.
"I'll just be playing basketball for the next 365 days," she said, adding that she is grateful for those who have supported her and for her former Utah teammates and coaches.
"I’ve appreciated the people who do come, supporters and donors," she said, "but hopefully one day I’ll actually get to play in front of a full stadium. That would be pretty cool."
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.
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