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‘This team is hungry and not satisfied’: Winning in the NCAA Tournament the next step for Washington State

Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge speaks with center Bella Murekatete during a game against Stanford on Jan. 2 in Pullman.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Washington State’s women’s basketball team set aside some time to reflect on its past two seasons – the best two-year run in program history by a long shot.

After all, the Cougs did transform a perennial underachiever into a March Madness contender. That’s worth savoring.

But not for long.

“I have a ton of confidence that this team is hungry and not satisfied,” fourth-year coach Kamie Ethridge said shortly after WSU’s season ended earlier this month.

“Yes, we’ll celebrate it. We’re going to celebrate last year’s team – because I don’t think we did enough – and this year’s team at some point, but we’re never going to just live on that. We’re also going to look forward to the future.”

Victory eluded the Cougars in back-to-back Big Dance appearances. A rough shooting performance and sizable disadvantage in the paint doomed eighth-seeded WSU to a 50-40 shortfall against Kansas State on March 19 in Raleigh, North Carolina. A year earlier, a late rally fizzled too early in the ninth-seeded Cougs’ 57-53 loss to South Florida.

“Now it’s taking that next step and getting past that first game, getting past that first round,” star sophomore guard Charlisse Leger-Walker said, “I think we’re capable of doing that. It’s just about getting back in the gym and having that mentality every day, knowing we can do it, knowing it wasn’t just luck last year or this year.”

WSU’s rise into the national conversation, while unthinkable only a few years ago, wasn’t a chance occurrence. It came gradually and through a process, though there was some good fortune involved. The Cougs reeled in a couple of recruiting gems, and players were willing to buy into new coaching philosophies.

“We had to rebuild the roster and change the culture,” she said, “change the language, what was allowed and not allowed, what a locker room should sound like, what a gym should sound like and how you train, and your work ethic and commitment level, and your loyalty.

“Those four-year seniors, even when we were getting beat, they were changing that foundation,” Ethridge continued, highlighting the importance of seniors Shir Levy and Michaela Jones, both reserves but mainstay Cougs and crucial pieces in the program’s maturation. “Then you add kids that already are all of those things – kids that are committed and know what excellence looks like and know what it means to compete at the highest level, and want that challenge.”

In their third campaign under Ethridge, the Cougs introduced the Pac-12 hoops world to a pair of game-changing siblings named Leger-Walker, broke through unexpectedly and recorded a number of firsts for the program. But depth issues caused inconsistency.

WSU returned almost its entire roster, yet still entered this season under the radar. Few could have predicted the Cougars to register their best Pac-12 record (11-6), highest finish in the powerhouse conference’s standings (tied for second) and most wins in a season in the NCAA era (19).

“There hasn’t been a great tradition of making tournaments (here),” Ethridge said. Since the program was established in 1970, WSU has qualified three times for both the NCAAs (1991, 2021, ’22) and the NIT (2014, ’15, ’17). In the NCAA era, which began in 1982, the Cougars have posted just seven winning seasons.

“It’s been a struggle a little bit for WSU, just because there’s been such little success,” Ethridge added. “We fight that in the Pac, competing against great teams and traditions. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. We’ve gotta continue to build that.”

At least, the Cougars have established themselves as a team to be respected. Wins over ranked opponents aren’t viewed so much as upsets anymore, and it appears as though they’re making up ground on the Pac-12’s traditional elites – it should be noted that Stanford, a Final Four team this season that has rarely been challenged by and has never lost to the Cougs, sweated out a seven-point win at home over WSU in a competitive matchup in February.

So, what will it take for the Cougars to sustain their upward trend and advance in the NCAA tourney? Of course, the top teams in March provide the blueprint. They’re deep and steady defensively, boasting length at four or five positions and three or more strong scoring options.

“You look at the people that are going to win in (the NCAA Tournament),” Ethridge said. “Everyone plays pretty good defense, some are better than others. People can stretch and floor and make timely 3s.

“When we win, we make 3s, but we’re too reliant on one or two players, and that’s about recruiting, that’s about getting our bigs better and being a presence in the post. We didn’t really have that (versus K-State). We can get better at every single position on the floor. Everyone in our locker room needs to be better and we need to recruit people who can put the ball in the basket. … You need depth to win, and we’re a little too pencil thin.”

The priority is finding a point guard. New Zealand native Krystal Leger-Walker held down that role and cemented herself as a WSU great over the past two seasons, lifting her teammates with leadership and pacing the Pac-12 in total assists both years.

“She carried a lot of weight,” Ethridge said. “Us turning around at Washington State … it has a lot to do with Krystal Leger-Walker. Proud that I got to coach her and thankful I get to continue coaching her sister.”

Charlisse Leger-Walker, a two-time All-Pac-12 pick who can singlehandedly alter games with her offense, may be in line to shoulder more of the ball-handling duties, but it doesn’t seem likely that she’d be shifted at this point to primary point guard.

The transfer portal could be worth exploring. Otherwise, perhaps a backup or young player emerges. Junior Seattle product Grace Sarver saw an increased role this season and often took the ball up the court. Coug coaches are optimistic about 5-3 freshman Kaia Woods, who joined the team at midseason out of Toronto’s Royal Crown Academy, a prep hoops factory.

Astera Tuhina, a 5-9 Kosovo native, will be one of two intriguing newcomers in the backcourt. She suited up for her senior national team last year against veteran European talent. Ethridge said Tuhina has a “pass-first mindset” and a smooth 3-point shot. She averaged 7.7 points, 7.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds across three games for Team Kosovo at the 2021 FIBA U20 European Challengers event.

WSU also signed Kyra Gardner, a prolific scorer from Raymond, Washington, who took home the prestigious Gatorade Player of the Year award for the state of Washington after averaging 27.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 7.0 steals, 5.1 assists and 2.3 blocks per game last season against Class 2B competition.

“Our program is on the rise and we have a lot of great recruits and a lot of the girls staying here that are going to keep building it,” Krystal Leger-Walker said.

Barring any surprise departures, the Cougars’ lineup for next season should consist of four returning starters and its three top reserves.

Senior forward Ula Motuga didn’t participate in senior day festivities and will “hopefully be coming back,” Ethridge said. Charlisse Leger-Walker, sharpshooting junior Johanna Teder and junior post Bella Murekatete, the Pac-12’s co-most improved player, are the other starters expected to return. Sarver, along with fast-improving 6-2 freshman guard Tara Wallack and backup center Jessica Clarke, were key backups this year.

The 6-3 Murekatete’s continued development is an offseason focus for a WSU team hungry to advance.

“Part of her thing is going to be learning how to stretch the defense, get a little more range on her shot,” Ethridge said. “I think you’re going to see a different player next year. I can’t wait to see what Bella will look like next year.”