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‘A massive, massive moment.’ Cougars’ season of achievements will culminate at the NCAA Tournament

UPDATED: Mon., March 15, 2021

In many ways, the tense atmosphere inside the Rankich Club Room at Martin Stadium was fitting for a Washington State team whose 2020-21 campaign at times resembled an edge-of-your-seat action flick more than it did a college basketball season.

As was the case with so many Pac-12 games this season – overtime battles against No. 8 UCLA, No. 7 Arizona, Oregon State and USC, not to mention a regulation thriller with No. 5 UCLA – Selection Monday was supposed to come down to the wire for the Cougars, who’ve spent the last month resting nervously on the NCAA bubble.

But once ESPN’s selection show began Monday afternoon, a program that has spent 30 years trying to get back to the Big Dance had to wait just 40 seconds to learn it secured a spot in the 68-team field. The No. 9 Cougars (12-11), who qualified via an at-large bid, will open against No. 8 South Florida (18-3) in the Mercado Region. The game will tip off at 6:30 p.m. PT Sunday in San Antonio and will air on ESPN2. A specific location will be announced later this evening.

While some teams waited a full 30 minutes to learn if they’d booked a spot in the tournament, things unfolded quickly for the Cougars. Moments after ESPN analysts revealed the first matchup, between No. 1 North Carolina State and No. 16 North Carolina A&T, a graphic appeared with the iconic Cougar head, and USF’s deep-green bull horn logo.

The Cougars had virtually no time to settle in when their name was announced, but as soon as it happened, all 12 players came unglued from the black leather chairs that were arranged in socially distant fashion in front of a drop-down projector.

Some waved the crimson-and- grey pom-poms that were resting on every chair. In the back of the room, two team members held the sacred Ol’ Crimson flag up high. Junior forward Ula Motuga captured a video selfie of the reaction, which was later posted to the team’s Instagram account. All shared in the celebration, soaking in the moment of a historical milestone that only one other WSU team has achieved.

“We were just so overjoyed, so happy and proud when we saw our name come up on the screen,” said standout guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year. “Most of us probably weren’t ready because we were the second group of teams that were called out. … This is what we’ve been working toward and what we’ve been working for, so to see our name come up on the screen, it was just a massive, massive moment for our team and for this program.”

Not to mention, a big relief.

Kamie Ethridge led the Cougars to a handful of firsts in her third season at the helm. Although its stay in the weekly poll was short-lived, WSU nabbed the program’s first-ever Associated Press Top 25 ranking, coming in at No. 25 after beating seventh-ranked Arizona. Less than a month later, the Cougars took down No. 5 UCLA – an upset that signified the program’s first-ever victory over a top-five team.

But fatigue set in down the stretch of the season, opponents offered more resistance against WSU’s top weapon, Leger-Walker, and guard Cherilyn Molina took a hiatus for personal reasons before leaving the team for good. The Cougars has been the closest thing to an NCAA lock after their Feb. 5 win over the Bruins, but then dropped four consecutive games – including three to unranked opposition – over a 12-day span and needed to win the final two Pac-12 games to clinch a winning record in the regular season.

Bracketology experts still projected that WSU would punch a ticket, but bid stealers in other conferences muddied the waters over the last week and many considered the Cougars to be among the “last four in,” which was more than enough to awaken the nerves of players and coaches on Selection Monday.

“I think there were a lot of emotions throughout the day,” Leger-Walker said. “For me personally, we actually trained this morning, so I think that took everyone’s mind off it a little bit. But as we were getting ready and walking over to watch the selection show, obviously all the nerves and everything were starting to build a little bit, and you could definitely tell all of us were anxious and so ready to see our name pop up.”

Now Ethridge, Leger-Walker and the Cougars will be targeting another first. Seeded No. 11, the 1991 team didn’t make it out of the first round in Austin, Texas, losing 82-62 to No. 6 Northwestern.

In due time, WSU will begin preparations to play USF in a game that will almost surely feature the Cougars as an underdog, but Monday was more about celebrating the moment.

“It’s hard to process past the moment of getting in and the excitement of that,” Ethridge said. “And just what a great moment to celebrate with our team. … I just love the story behind it, the fact we’ve only been to one in our entire history and that one was 30 years ago. It’s a neat story. We want to become relevant in women’s basketball, we want to become a household name in women’s basketball and a top program in the country.

“This was the first step. To get into the NCAA Tournament, to make some noise and to play a great South Florida team.”

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