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Sports >  WSU basketball

Washington State holds off Colorado to clinch program’s first berth into Pac-12 Tournament championship game

March 3, 2023 Updated Sat., March 11, 2023 at 3:27 p.m.

Washington State’s bench celebrates during a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal against the Colorado Buffaloes on Friday in Las Vegas.  (Courtesy WSU Athletics)
Washington State’s bench celebrates during a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal against the Colorado Buffaloes on Friday in Las Vegas. (Courtesy WSU Athletics)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Washington State’s women’s basketball team made history – again.

One day after stunning Utah for their first-ever win over an AP top-three opponent, the Cougs pulled off another unprecedented feat. WSU is headed to the Pac-12 tournament championship game for the first time in program history.

The seventh-seeded Cougars extended their remarkable run at the conference tourney with a 61-49 semifinal victory over 20th-ranked Colorado, the No. 3 seed, Friday night at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.

“There’s so many emotions right now,” WSU guard Charlisse Leger-Walker said during the Pac-12 Network postgame show. “I’m just so proud of this team and so proud of how we’ve been performing. … We proved we deserve to be here. We deserve to be in this final.”

WSU (22-10) also set a program record for wins in a season.

The Cougars, already locked safely into the NCAA tournament field for the third consecutive season, will face fifth-seeded UCLA at 2 p.m. Sunday for the conference crown. The Bruins upset top-seeded Stanford earlier Friday night.

WSU’s defense clamped down on the Buffaloes (23-8) and the Cougars shot out to a 20-6 lead early in the second quarter. The advantage grew to 16 points in the third, but Colorado rallied, finishing the period on a 12-0 run to tie the score at 38 heading into the fourth.

Cougar forward Ula Motuga’s 3-pointer with 6:17 remaining kick-started a 12-2 run that spanned about 3 minutes and ended with WSU up by 10 points. The Cougs held steady from there, then rushed the floor after the final horn and danced at midcourt with a contingent of WSU supporters to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” – the team’s post-win anthem this season – to celebrate the latest triumph on their ever-growing list of accomplishments.

“This is the greatest feeling in the world … to see the smiles and the community we have behind us,” Ethridge said while joined at the Pac-12 Network commentators’ table by her whole team, the WSU band and cheerleaders. “It’s a dream come true, and with the best people in the world.”

Leger-Walker, WSU’s star junior, led the team with 15 points on 6 of 17 from the field. Center Bella Murekatete added 12 points (6 of 10) and eight rebounds. Guard Astera Tuhina had 10 points and Motuga chipped in nine points, shooting 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, to go with six rebounds.

WSU shot 47% from the floor and 6 of 13 from 3-point range, and held CU to 37% shooting and 4 of 18 from deep. Buffs forward Aaronette Vonleh scored a game-high 18 points (9 of 11) and guard Jaylyn Sherrod contributed 13 (5 of 14). The rest of the Buffaloes went a combined 6 of 29 from the field.

The Cougars never trailed. They preserved a double-digit lead through a turnover-filled second quarter and went into halftime ahead 27-16. The Buffs controlled the third quarter, but WSU dominated the last 10 minutes, outscoring CU 23-11. The Cougs shot 50% from the field, 8 of 9 from the line and committed one turnover in the fourth while limiting the Buffs to 4 of 17 from the floor.

“I’m really proud of that fourth quarter,” Ethridge said. “We couldn’t quite get a grip on things (in the third). … Our response was huge. A lot of people stepped up and made plays, and this is the greatest thing, watching that celebration.”

WSU split with UCLA this season, losing 73-66 on Jan. 22 in Pullman and winning 62-55 on Feb. 23 in Los Angeles – the Cougs’ first victory at Pauley Pavilion.

“We’re still getting better,” Ethridge said. “Who knows – maybe we have another run in us.”

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