She’s won an NCAA title and an Olympic gold medal, which means Kamie Ethridge seldom feels the need to talk about moral victories.
But after Monday’s near miss against No. 8 Oregon, the Washington State women’s basketball coach really did want to talk about the journey.
Despite the disruptions of COVID-19 and the graduation of two of the top players in program history, this journey is off to a promising 4-1 start – and fulfilling some of the promises Ethridge made before it began.
Ethridge’s second season ended last March with a 27-point loss to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
That left the Cougs at 11-20 for the year, two wins better than in her first season. But gone were Borislava Hristova, the leading scorer in program history, and Chanelle Molina, the sublime point guard who also was WSU’s first five-star recruit. Two other top players transferred out of the program.
The program didn’t make much noise during the offseason apart from the citation issued to Ethridge from the Pullman Police Department on Aug. 28 for the “mini-block party” in her driveway.
Meanwhile, no one was listening to Ethridge’s promise that the culture was changing, that this would be a deeper team.
“We’re really in a better place than we ever have been, and I think we’ll be competitive because of that,” Ethridge said.
Two weeks later, her rival coaches voted to put WSU at the bottom of the preseason poll.
COVID took more from the Cougs, who endured their share of schedule shuffling, including a lost opportunity to play at regional rival Gonzaga.
The conference openers against Cal and Stanford – the first games of the season, period – also were wiped out by COVID issues.
That meant the opener would be at Washington, where the Cougs’ 60-52 win didn’t raise many eyebrows because the Huskies were picked for 11th.
An easy win over Idaho brought the Cougs full circle Dec. 19 against No. 21 Oregon State at Beasley Coliseum. Down by two with 3½ minutes left, WSU scored the last eight points to win 61-55.
WSU’s first win over a ranked opponent in almost four years, it looked like less of a fluke when the Cougars jumped on defending conference champ Oregon.
Leading by as many as nine in the second half, the Cougs couldn’t hold on and lost 69-65 to a program that’s won 27 straight and finished No. 2 in the country last year.
The missed opportunities in the final 2 minutes were lamentable, but Ethridge didn’t dwell on those.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we really put together a pretty solid 40-minute game against a top team in the country,” Ethridge said.
WSU did it with versatility – a far cry from last year, when Hristova and Molina combined for over half the Cougs’ scoring. True freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker, the Pac-12’s No. 2 scorer, piled up 20 points and four assists.
Junior forward Ula Motuga and freshman center Jessica Clarke had 11 apiece, and transfer Krystal Leger-Walker had 10 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I think this is a statement game in the sense of: If we’d have played 30 minutes of good basketball, we would’ve been down 15 against this team,” Ethridge said.
There will be more what-ifs ahead in a brutal Pac-12 schedule. Stanford, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon are in the top 10; barring more COVID-related cancellations, the Cougs will face them all in the months ahead.
They will face them, however, with more confidence, more weapons and a commitment to team defense.
“Coach talked about these values, and it’s about being tough, and that the confidence will come if we’re tough,” said Krystal Leger-Walker, who knows what she’s talking about.
The New Zealander was recruited by Ethridge to play at Northern Colorado, where in 2018 they led the Bears to the first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
Lured to WSU by the chance to play alongside younger sister Charlisse, she also wanted another year with Ethridge.
On the court, the Cougs are winning with defense. After holding OSU to 55 points, they gave up just 69 to an Oregon squad that’s accustomed to scoring in the 80s.
“We know that we’re all in this together, that my teammates have my back and that I’m not on an island,” Leger-Walker said.
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