Heavy artillery: Army players lead Patriot League men and women in scoring

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Enough cool snapshots have piled up now to fill a dozen scrapbooks, but this might be Kelsey Minato’s favorite. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point graduate, was back on campus with Team USA two Augusts ago, and there was Minato, shooting around, minding her own business when …

“Coach K just called me out,” the Army guard recalled.

“He said, ‘Kelsey Minato challenges Steph Curry to a 3-point contest.’ I had no idea he was actually going to do that. When he did that, I was caught just a little bit off-guard.”

Here ya go. Men’s regulation ball. First one to 15 wins.

“When he said that, I thought it was first person to 15 points wins,” Minato chuckled, “so after I hit five 3-pointers, I turned around like I had won.”

No, no, no. Fifteen makes. By the time Curry reached 15, Minato had 12.

“And then Coach K said Steph had stepped over the line five times,” the Army senior said. “So whenever I tell this story, I say, ‘Coach K said I won.’ That’s definitely a highlight of my basketball career, not only just shooting alongside Steph Curry, but we also got to shoot with James Harden and Derrick Rose. It was definitely a special event for us.”

Along the banks of the Hudson River, “special” has sort of become the new normal. Minato’s Cadets (23-2) are in the catbird seat for their second NCAA Tournament berth in three seasons. The women’s and men’s basketball squads just swept a hoops doubleheader against rival Navy in Annapolis, Md., this past weekend. And West Point is home to the top scorers in the Patriot League on both the women’s side (Minato, at 23.2 points per game) and the men’s (Tanner Plomb, at 20.5 per contest).

“That is pretty cool,” said Plomb, whose Cadets (17-11) visit Boston University Tuesday night on ASN, when asked about the twin-scoring-title chase. “That would be pretty special. But I’m willing, and I know she’s willing, to pass up any open shots (if it helps) the whole team’s success.”

“All that I care about is if we win the conference tournament and we get a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Minato added. “That’s my ultimate goal.”

Humility. Modesty. Consistency. A 6-7 inside-out ace, Plomb had reached double digits in scoring over 30 consecutive games until he netted eight in a win over Holy Cross last week, Army’s fifth victory over its last six contests. The Wisconsin native dropped 27 on George Washington, 24 on Tennessee and 27 in a win over Monmouth.

“It was one of the most exciting basketball games I’ve ever played in,” The senior forward said of the 91-84 victory over the Hawks back on December 28. “Everybody on the team was saying that whether they played 30 minutes in that game or three minutes of that game, they were more into that game than they ever have been.”

The 5-8 Minato, meanwhile, is on the cusp adding more icing to one of the most decorated cakes in Army basketball annals. A 13-point day at Navy pushed her career tally to 2,392 — just 71 shy of becoming the Patriot League’s all-time leading scorer (Bucknell’s Molly Creamer holds the current mark, at 2,462).

A two-time Patriot Player of the Year, Minato’s exploits within basketball circles — her 49-point outburst against Holy Cross in February 2014 set a new single-game league scoring mark and included a 26-for-26 showing from the stripe — have been well-documented. But as the winter of her Army days loom, the legend has gathered steam the way a cartoon snowball does down the side of a mountain. Last month, a Newsweek headline declared the California native to be the ‘BEST SERVICE ACADEMY ‘BALLER SINCE (DAVID) ROBINSON,’ a reference to the former Navy great who was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft.

“To be compared to David Robinson, it’s definitely a high honor,” said Minato, who also leads the Patriot in 3-point percentage (.481), 3-point makes (3.0 per game), free-throw percentage (.867) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4). “And I think it just goes to show, not how necessarily far I’ve come, but how far service academies have come. Because service academies don’t tend to be known for having strong athletic programs, necessarily, and I know it’s tougher for coaches to recruit. But I think we kind of use that to our advantage and use that as a motivating factor to work harder and overcome that sort of stigma. Being compared to David Robinson is definitely a high honor and it’s very humbling for me.”

Minato’s release is as original and effective as it is slightly unorthodox, the result of her trying, as a child, to mimic the form of her father, Rick. She puts up at least 150 shots per day, and that’s not counting an intense, internal free-throw competition with herself, always pushing for a new record for consecutive makes during practice.

“I think my record is 75 free throws in a row,” she said. “And 96 out of 100. That was my record. I was pretty happy with that many makes in a row.”

Tanner-Plomb-Army3They share a mutual perfectionism, a commitment to service (Minato last week was named one of 10 national finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, presented to the Division I student-athlete who excels in community, classroom, character and competition), and a specialization in field artillery: Minato has been assigned to Colorado’s Fort Carson after graduation; Plomb to Fort Hood in Texas.

“He’s a very smart player,” Minato said of Plomb (right), who opened the week third among Patriot League ballers in 3-point makes (70) and ninth in rebounds per game (5.7). “He’s very smooth and fundamental. It’s a lot of fun to watch him because he has the ability to take it to the basket and finish at the rim, but he’s also a very good shooter outside and also inside the 3-point line. He’s a lot of fun, and incredibly athletic, too, which makes it hard to guard him. I know I enjoy watching him because he’s so smooth.”

“You watch her, and it honestly looks effortless,” Plomb said of Minato. “She’s a knock-down shooter, always getting to the free-throw line. Honestly, she’s one of the best players I’ve ever watched play. It’s kind of special being at (West Point) at the same time and watching her success, because she’s definitely a special player to watch.”

While we’re on the subject of special, have the Patriot League’s top scorers ever locked horns in a friendly game of H-O-R-S-E? P-I-G? Around The World?

“No (we) haven’t,” Minato said. “But that would be a good competition. I don’t know who would win, because he’s a great shooter.”

Then again, so’s she. And anytime Steph wants a rematch, well, he knows where to find her.

Above: Kelsey Minato is ready to shoot the ball any time, any where — even against Steph Curry. (Courtesy Army West Point Athletics)
Middle: Tanner Plomb reached double digits in scoring over 30 consecutive games until he netted eight in a win over Holy Cross last week. (Courtesy Army West Point Athletics)

Sean Keeler

Follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @SeanKeeler