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Sports >  WSU basketball

Washington State, missing star guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, rallies from down 20 points, but falls short in loss to No. 11 Utah

Dec. 30, 2022 Updated Fri., Dec. 30, 2022 at 11:35 p.m.

PULLMAN – Missing its best player, Washington State fell into a big hole early against the 11th-ranked team in the country. But the Cougars crawled back, turning a lopsided college women’s basketball game into a thriller.

The Cougars trailed by 20 points late in the second quarter against unbeaten Utah. WSU rallied in the second half and erased most of the deficit, tying the score with less than a minute remaining , but the comeback effort fell just short in a 71-66 loss to the Utes on Friday at Beasley Coliseum.

WSU (10-3, 0-2 Pac-12) played without star guard Charlisse Leger-Walker – the team’s primary ballhandler and the conference’s leading scorer at 21.1 points per game. The junior returned home to New Zealand recently to tend to a family matter.

“I love that we fought through the adversity and scratched back into the game and put ourselves in a position to maybe win the game,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “That’s pretty surprising when you’re down 20 in the first half.

“(With) Charlisse not being here, I think this is a great sign for when we get her back and the steps we’re making without her – and to play Utah like this.”

Leger-Walker’s absence was glaring during the first half. Turnovers and inefficient shooting plagued the Cougars, who surrendered 12 consecutive Utes points late in the second quarter and trailed 38-22 at halftime. WSU shot 33% from the field and had 17 turnovers in the first half.

“I was just really upset with our ballhandling in the backcourt against (Utah’s) press,” Ethridge said. “They got more aggressive because we were so tentative, and that’s a lot because you don’t have Charlisse, who’s a great ballhandler and decision-maker.”

The Cougars regrouped at halftime and looked like a re-energized team in the second half.

WSU shot 53.3% from the field, committed seven turnovers and outscored Utah 44-33 after halftime. The Utes (13-0, 2-0) shot 41% from the floor and had 12 turnovers in the second half.

“I was really happy with the leadership in the locker room,” Ethridge said, crediting veteran forward Ula Motuga for lighting a fire under her teammates. “Our kids stayed with it. We got a little bit better offensively and got ourselves in better spots on the floor. The effort on the defensive end started helping us. We were guarding so well and getting rebounds that, slowly, the momentum changed.

“We got a couple of stops early in the third and we got out and ran, got easy baskets. … We had a better mindset of attacking the press. That got us back in it.”

WSU found a rhythm on offense and capitalized on turnovers to trim the Utes’ lead to nine points late in the third quarter.

Freshman guard Astera Tuhina – making her first career start – and Motuga hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to key a 14-1 Cougars run that spanned over 5 minutes.

“We did a good job of making (Utah) take hard, contested shots, securing the rebound, then having people leak out and get fast-break points,” Motuga said.

The Utes never lost the lead, but the Cougars tied the score three times in the last 2:22. Utah made some crucial free throws to stay ahead by a narrow margin. Tuhina missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer with 21 seconds left, and Motuga’s potential overtime-forcing 3-point attempt rattled out with 3 seconds left.

“(Ethridge) drew up a great play to get me in the best position,” Motuga said. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be, but I’m grateful that I was trusted to make that shot.”

WSU center Bella Murekatete paced all players with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the floor, adding 11 rebounds and six assists. Tuhina added 12 points and eight boards, and Motuga chipped in 11 points.

Guard Kennady McQueen (20 points) and forward Alissa Pili (18) led the Utes, who remain the only undefeated team in the Pac-12 – and one of just five teams nationally with a perfect record.

The Cougars host Colorado at 4 p.m. Sunday. Ethridge said Leger-Walker is questionable to play.

“Obviously, family is everything. We’re anxious to get her back and she’s anxious to get back,” Ethridge said of Leger-Walker. “I hope I wake up and she’s here. I don’t think it’s a long-term thing at all. We just have to manage the fact that, for whatever reason, you’re going to lose players like that and you just gotta have people step up and be ready to go.”

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