As the Washington State women celebrated one of the biggest wins in program history, Charlisse Leger-Walker was in the middle of the mob.
Fitting enough, because moments earlier, it was the freshman from New Zealand who drove into a crowd of Arizona defenders and put up the shot that gave the Cougars a sensational overtime win last Sunday over the seventh-ranked team in the country.
As her teammates shrieked on the floor of Beasley Coliseum, Leger-Walker was just as overjoyed.
Yet she didn’t show it, which may be Leger-Walker’s biggest strength: an ability to rise to the moment, yet be remarkably unaffected by it.
“I don’t get highly emotional, and I think that can help during stressful times on the court,” Leger-Walker said this week.
And what a week it’s been. The Cougars are 7-2 and ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in program history. They’re also the NCAA team of the week after coming from 20 points down to knock off the Wildcats.
And for the third time in a row, Leger-Walker is the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. She’s averaging almost 19 points a game, takes almost 30% of the Cougars’ shots from the field and suddenly has become the face of the future for WSU women’s hoops.
One of the fastest-rising sports stars in the Inland Northwest, Leger-Walker is only 19 years old yet has had a transformative effect on a team that figured to spend the year rebuilding and trying to stay out of the Pac-12 basement.
Most of the credit goes to third-year coach Kamie Ethridge, who promised to change the culture in a program that has never reached the NCAA Tournament and was the last Power 5 school in the land to earn a Top 25 ranking.
A key part of the rebuilding project was signing Leger-Walker, a basketball phenomenon in a county best known for rugby.
The daughter of two-time New Zealand Olympian Leanne Walker joined the Tall Ferns national squad at the record-young age of 16. Leger-Walker helped New Zealand win a bronze medal in the 2019 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
By 2019, the 5-foot-9 guard was playing in Olympic prequalifying events and drawing the attention of American universities – at least 60, by her count.
But Ethridge and the Cougars checked all the boxes during her visit in 2019, especially the values of accountability toughness, competitiveness and trust.
“I believe in the coach’s vision and what their culture is all about, and all their values lined up with what I was looking for,” Leger-Walker told Stuff, a New Zealand sports publication, last spring.
“I want to go professional, and to do that you have to be playing against the top teams and best players in the country. The Pac-12 delivers that and being exposed to that was something I was intrigued by.”
Meanwhile, older sister Krystal was still at Northern Colorado, where Ethridge had led the Bears on a run to the NCAA Tournament.
When she made her campus visit to Pullman, Charlisse had no idea her sister had intended to transfer to Pullman. A few months later, Krystal made the move and helped seal the deal for Charlisse, who committed in April.
“That is so special, to be able to play together,” Leger-Walker said. “I never even thought that it would be a possibility because of our age difference, so this is really cool.”
The COVID-19 pandemic intervened, however, sending Krystal back to their home in Waikato, near Auckland.
With the entire country in lockdown, Krystal did her WSU coursework, Charlisse her high school studies. Spare time was filled with backyard basketball games and wondering when they’d get to Pullman.
Deliverance came in late summer, followed by a late-developing season that didn’t begin until Dec. 11 at rival Washington.
Leger-Walker delivered immediately in a 60-52 win in Seattle, filling the stat sheet with 20 points, seven rebounds, four steals, three blocks and three assists.
Fans wondered during the offseason how Ethridge would replace career scoring leader Borislava Hristova and slick point guard Chanelle Molina. As it turns out, Leger-Walker is a little of both.
Through eight games, she’s averaging 18.8 points, shooting 40% from the field while averaging 5.3 rebounds and an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1. She also averages better than three steals a game.
More important, she’s quietly making everyone else better.
Asked about her star freshman, Ethridge didn’t talk about her stats.
“We Americans see many sports superstars,” Ethridge said. “It’s in our nature to be very loud, but that is not Charlisse. … She’s every bit of a killer, but she does it with a calmness, unaffected by the big moment and the success she’s had. After games she comes back, and she’s the hardest-working player out there. … But she’s still a killer.”
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