Pac-12 Feature: Washington's Collier grateful for storybook ending

Eric Evans/Pac-12 Conference

Katie Collier is sentimental by nature. She caught herself looking around at practice on Wednesday, thinking “Oh my gosh, this is going to be the last few weeks of my college basketball career.”

“I can’t believe it’s here,” the Washington Huskies senior forward said, on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament opener against Montana State in Seattle on Saturday. “It’s the emotional side of me. But it’s also a motivational thing for me. I want to go out with a bang. It’s one-and-done time and I am ready to give it everything I have.”

Which would make this last NCAA Tournament run no different than anything else Collier has done during the five years that passed since her first season at Washington. Collier’s story is well known in Seattle, the diagnosis of leukemia that happened immediately after she fell ill during her recruiting visit to Washington where she would be one of the first recruits for the new coaching staff of then-coach Kevin McGuff and then-assistant coach Mike Neighbors.

She was at a football tailgate breakfast for new recruits when she fell ill. By 3:45 the next morning, she was texting Neighbors to tell him she had cancer.

Collier went through six months of treatment, missing her first season as a college basketball player and facing the possibility that she might never play again. In fact, she was facing even worse possibilities.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” Collier said.

But Collier would finish her high school basketball career and begin her college career at Washington, only to have it delayed further by a knee injury in 2012 that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed her body a chance to heal and rejuvenate.

Her mind, however, was always in the right place.

“I’ve stopped counting how many community service things she does,” Neighbors said. “Every time you look up she’s doing something, and it’s not even news anymore. It’s what she is and who she is.”

Collier said she has always felt like she had a debt to repay.

“So many people helped me when I had cancer,” Collier said. “So I always said I would do anything, work at the Ronald McDonald house, go with teammates to Children’s Hospital to hang out with the kids. People go through hard times. If we can get their mind off of that for a while, the way people did for me, I will always try to share that with people.”

Teammate Chantel Osahor said that every time she talks about Collier, she finds herself smiling.

“She is one of the biggest reasons I keep going,” Osahor said. “Kelsey (Plum) and I don’t have the seasons we’ve had if she doesn’t do her job. She goes at 100 percent always, because she values every minute she gets to play.”

Collier has been a critical piece of the puzzle for the Huskies. She is a tone-setter on defense and an important contributor offensively, a worthy complement to Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor’s most prominent contributions.

“Our defense is much improved and she has been a big part of that,” Neighbors said. “She had an incredible season of conditioning. She worked her tail off to get into the shape she’s in. If you look at her, she looks like she belongs in the crossfit games, she looks so fit.”

Collier said she comes to the floor every day with an appreciation for her opportunity to play, one she knows was not guaranteed to her, starting with the day she was diagnosed back in September 2011.

“Every year, when that day rolls around, I am extra appreciative,” Collier said of the anniversary of her diagnosis. “Everyone has obstacles, but there has never been a lack of gratitude for the fact that I get to do this every day, that I am here running around.”

Neighbors called it a “storybook ending.”

“She didn’t know if she would ever play basketball again, and to have the impact that she’s had for us,” Neighbors said. “I literally couldn’t script a better ending for her after five years.”

Collier said she hopes that she can inspire others the way she’s inspired Neighbors and her teammates.

“I’ve had random people I don’t know who have heard that I had cancer and beat it and played at the collegiate level,” Collier said. “And they are so nice and they want to talk to me about their experiences. If anybody can look at me and it helps them, that’s great.”

In the meantime, Collier has more games to play.

“This experience has been way more than I expected on so many levels,” Collier said. “To be so successful last year, and then have another opportunity to do the same thing. I’m so lucky to have it.”

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