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Sports >  WSU basketball

Reliving five moments that defined the regular season for tournament-bound Washington State

Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker drives past UCLA’s Chantel Horvat on Feb. 5 in Pullman, during a 67-63 Cougars win.  (Associated Press)
Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker drives past UCLA’s Chantel Horvat on Feb. 5 in Pullman, during a 67-63 Cougars win. (Associated Press)

In many ways, a historic season for the Washington State women has been defined by the moments that comprised it.

Some have been big, others were on the smaller side, but all were essential in their own right to punching the program’s first NCAA Tournament ticket in 30 years.

The ninth-seeded Cougars may be crafting a few more of those moments on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. when they attempt to upset eighth-seeded South Florida at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, and secure the program’s first NCAA Tournament win.

Before they dive into March Madness, let’s revisit how the Cougars got there by rewinding the top five moments that defined the first 23 games of an iconic 2020-21 season.

1. Leger-Walker’s winner beats top-10 team, Part I

The vast majority of college basketball players go four years without upsetting a top-10 team, let alone have the ball in their hands inside the final minute with an opportunity to take the shot that would make such an achievement possible.

With just 23 college games under her belt, Charlisse Leger-Walker has already had that opportunity twice, and she delivered both times. It was a given that both moments would crack this list, but deciding which one carried more weight was the real challenge.

Considering the nature of the upset, what it meant from a historical perspective and the boost it gave WSU’s tournament chances, the choice for No. 1 is the go-ahead 3-pointer that allowed the Cougars to knock off UCLA and secure the program’s first victory over a top-five program.

The Bruins took a 63-61 lead with 1:12 left in the fourth quarter, and Leger-Walker missed a layup that would’ve tied things up with under a minute to go. UCLA grabbed the defensive rebound but didn’t hang onto the ball for long. WSU’s Grace Sarver came up with a crucial steal that allowed the Cougars to call timeout.

Krystal Leger-Walker waited for her sister to peel off a defender, passed the ball and subsequently watched Charlisse hoist a quick 3-pointer from the elbow. The ball grazed the inside of the rim and dropped into the net, sinking the fifth-ranked Bruins, who couldn’t convert on the other end. Charlisse Leger-Walker closed a 28-point outing with four free throws to stamp a 67-63 win at Beasley Coliseum.

2. Leger-Walker’s winner beats top-10 team, Part II

Arizona was ranked two spots lower than UCLA when the Cougars pulled off another top-10 upset in Pullman, but WSU’s 71-69 overtime triumph on Jan. 10 shouldn’t be understated – nor the winning shot that allowed it to happen.

History may look back at the UCLA upset more fondly, but this game had sizable ramifications, nudging the Cougars into the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. WSU had already defeated No. 21 Oregon State and gave No. 7 Oregon all it could handle two days later in a 65-59 loss, so it came as no surprise that the Cougars would eventually stun a top-10 team. A loaded Pac-12 schedule gave them multiple opportunities to do so.

The Cougars had command of the overtime period, leading 65-50, 67-62 and 69-65, but the Wildcats cut it two points on a layup from Aari McDonald. Krystal Leger-Walker’s foul put Arizona’s All-American on the foul line to tie it at 69.

After a timeout, WSU put the ball and the game in Charlisse’s hands. With teammates calling out the time on the game clock, Leger-Walker curled to the opposite side of the court, crossed up Arizona’s Bendu Yeaney, then drove to the hoop, splitting two defenders before releasing a scoop finger-roll shot with 2 seconds left.

The ball touched every corner of the rim before falling through the net as the final buzzer sounded, causing the socially distanced players on WSU’s bench to spill onto the court and mob the freshman in a not-as-distanced, albeit well-earned, celebration.

3. ‘Krystallizing’ their NCAA hopes

It seemed to be the consensus as WSU entered the Pac-12 Tournament: the Cougars had probably done enough to book a spot in the NCAA field, and most bracketology experts indicated as much, but why leave it to chance?

Beating an unranked Utah team in Las Vegas didn’t clinch a berth in the Big Dance, but maybe it offered some reassurance to members of the selection committee who may have been leery, or bumped the Cougars a spot or two on the seeding lines.

Either way, it wouldn’t have been possible without Leger-Walker – in this instance, Krystal perhaps more than Charlisse.

The final score, 58-47, points to a relatively comfortable win for the Cougars, and those who watched would know Kamie Ethridge’s team led by as many as 12 inside the final 4 minutes. They’d also know the Utes made things too close for comfort midway through the fourth quarter, using a 7-0 run to make it 44-41 with 6:15 left.

Krystal, who’d finish with a well-rounded stat line of 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists, took it upon herself to stop the bleeding after Utah’s Brynna Maxwell hit a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to three points.

The senior took the ball from the top of the key, curled toward the baseline and made a spin move inside, allowing her to shoot a right-handed, running floater from 5 feet out.

It not only ended Utah’s run, but it changed the momentum for good. WSU scored nine unanswered points – six coming on free throws from Charlisse – and effectively put the game out of reach.

4. Teder takeover leads Cougars past No. 21 Beavers

After cruising to early wins over Washington and Idaho, the Cougars faced their first true Pac-12 challenge the week before Christmas.

An Oregon State team that had won three Pac-12 regular-season championships since 2015 didn’t enter 2020-21 with the same expectations, but Scott Rueck’s team came into the year ranked No. 18.

The Beavers were ranked No. 21 when they paid the Cougars a visit on Dec. 19.

Johanna Teder would finish the regular season as the team’s fifth-leading scorer, but WSU’s second-most efficient 3-point shooter made a barrage of shots in the fourth quarter – and one big one with 1:13 left – to help the Cougars come away with their first marquee win.

Of Teder’s team-high 20 points, 14 came in the fourth quarter and 12 on 3-point tries.

The Estonian guard missed a jumper 21 seconds into the final quarter but then drained consecutive 3s that put the Cougars out in front 48-45.

When OSU jumped out to a 52-48 lead with 6:09 left, Teder steadied the ship, getting a jumper to fall before connecting on another 3 to push the Cougars to a 53-52 lead.

The game was tied at 55 with 73 seconds left when Teder made a move toward the top of the 3-point arc and picked up a screen from Ula Motuga, giving her enough space to get off a clean shot. Teder’s sixth 3-pointer was followed by an OSU miss at the other end, all but sealing a 61-55 win at Beasley Coliseum.

5. Leger-Walkers team up to force overtime at UCLA

In some cases this season, narrow losses to top-10 opponents were more advantageous to the Cougars than lopsided victories against overmatched nonconference foes.

There’s no question the selection committee placed more stock in an overtime loss to No. 8 UCLA than double-digit wins over Idaho and Eastern Washington.

In the season’s most impressive loss, Charlisse and Krystal Leger-Walker teamed up to send the Cougars to overtime for a third time in as many games, and nearly edged the Bruins after trailing by as many as 16 points in the third quarter.

UCLA’s lead was 42-26 with 4:44 left in the third when the Cougars began to chip away. Krystal and Charlisse both made baskets that trimmed the deficit to two points with 3:52 to play in the fourth, and Krystal’s jumper tied it at 48 with 2:01 left.

When the Bruins went up 53-50 with 2 seconds left, they committed a quick foul, meaning the Cougars would have to make their first free throw and intentionally miss the second, then pick up an offensive rebound and throw up a quick shot to tie the game.

Charlisse converted the first free throw and carefully missed her second off the left iron. Krystal chased down the board and threw up a short baseline runner in time to beat the buzzer and give the Cougars a second life.

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