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WSU Men's Basketball
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In building where her No. 33 is retired, Washington State’s Kamie Ethridge leads Cougars into NCAA Tournament

Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge shouts to players during the first round of a Pac-12 Tournament game against Utah on March 3 in Las Vegas.  (Associated Press)
Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge shouts to players during the first round of a Pac-12 Tournament game against Utah on March 3 in Las Vegas. (Associated Press)

It’s where Kamie Ethridge manufactured many of her best memories as a basketball player.

It’s where Ethridge, representing Lubbock (Texas) Monterey High School, lost in a 1980 state championship game to Dallas’ South Oak Cliff. It’s also where she exacted revenge on the same stage one year later as a high school junior, clipping powerhouse Duncanville 72-71.

It’s where she and her University of Texas teammates laid the groundwork for a historic 1986 season that culminated with a 97-81 win over Cheryl Miller and USC for the program’s first national championship.

It’s where Ethridge wore the No. 33, returning three decades later to become the first female athlete in school history to have her jersey retired at the state’s most esteemed academic institution.

The memories may not stop there for Ethridge at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.

It’s also where the third-year coach and Washington State will make their second NCAA Tournament appearance with an opportunity to nail down the program’s first win at the Big Dance. In their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991, the ninth-seeded Cougars (12-11) take on eighth-seeded South Florida (15-4) on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

“I ignored it forever,” Ethridge said of her homecoming. “Clearly, our sports information people do a great job and I think the reality of just, how many times do you think something like this happen? You get to go home in the arena you played in. I’m trying to think of any games that I’ve lost there. It’s the exact same gym. Obviously, with the banner, I’ve not seen the banner on the wall.

“… I’m not a real braggadocios person or toot my own horn, so all that’s low played in my mind, but (the players) were well aware of it and they were excited about it and they wanted pictures and they wanted to experience that environment.”

Ethridge posits that the pairing, or if nothing else the site, may have been schemed out by the planning committee, suggesting, “In years past, they put teams against each other that have some kind of story and some kind of history. I told the team, ‘The only way this was intentional is that there must have been someone 100 years old on the committee.’ ”

In a social media video released by the school, the Cougars were pictured walking into the arena at the University of Texas for a practice session. In the video, narrator and junior forward Ula Motuga remarks that the team is walking “into the house that Coach E built” and follows up by saying “the GOAT (greatest of all time) is home.”

While Ethridge would rather redirect the attention toward her team, she’s also conscious of the fact the Cougars will need any type of lift they can get against a South Florida team that’s lost just three times all season – one of those three losses coming to No. 4 Baylor.

“I just love that my experience as a player has trickled down,” Ethridge said. “And I think it makes them excited about playing in the same arena. If it gives us any kind of mojo, I’ll take it any day of the week.”

The mojo will be welcome, as will a big rebounding night.

USF is small across the board, with just one player, backup center Jordao Beatriz, listed at 6-foot-3. But the Bulls have been the best defensive rebounding team in the American Athletic Conference this year, with a rebounding margin of +9.1. They’re the AAC’s No. 1 team on the defensive glass and rank second on the offensive end.

“You see it every once in a while, you just see a mentality to rebound,” Ethridge said. “An instinct. You teach it, I think (Bulls coach Jose Fernandez) teaches offensive rebounding probably a lot. But you get certain kids. They’re longer than maybe their size. They’re 6-foot, I think their length is longer than that and I think their jumping ability gets them the advantage. They’re slippery and they’re not going to stop after getting hit just once.”

To extend their Texas stay, the Cougars will likely need to find offensive production from someone other than Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Charlisse Leger-Walker, who averaged 18.9 points per game during a blazing rookie season. It’s been a problem for WSU much of the year, but heightened since sixth man guard Cherilyn Molina left the team for personal reasons.

In games without Molina, the Cougars have gone just 3-5, and they managed just 44 points on a slow shooting night for Leger-Walker in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament.

Fortunately, the Bulls have been sporadic on offense, too, and they haven’t played the same level of competition as the Cougars, who’ve played 10 games against ranked opposition compared to one for USF.

“I think in a lot of ways they’re a lot like us,” Ethridge said. “They struggle at times just to put points on the board. We both average about 64 points a game. So I think it’s a really good matchup for us. I think we match up well.

“I think it’s going to be two defensive-minded teams, and then it’s going to be who can figure out some ways to put some points on the board.”

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