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WSU Men's Basketball

‘Let’s do something that hasn’t been done before’: Washington State, making first appearance in Pac-12 title game, faces UCLA on Sunday

Washington State celebrates beating Colorado on Friday night in Las Vegas, clinching a berth into the Pac-12 Tournament title game for the first time.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

The Washington State women’s basketball team already hit a few program milestones this month. The Cougars have checked off several first-time accomplishments during their most impressive season , and there’s still plenty of history to be made in March.

On Sunday, WSU will make its first appearance in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game. The seventh-seeded Cougars face No. 5 seed UCLA at 2 p.m. in Las Vegas. The game will air on ESPN2.

With a win, the Cougars would become the first WSU hoops team – women’s or men’s – in 82 years to hoist a conference championship trophy. Only two Cougars basketball teams have captured a conference title. No WSU team has won a Pac-12 tourney, but the men’s program claimed regular-season crowns in 1917 and 1941.

WSU is the lowest-ranked seed to advance to the championship round since the conference tourney was established in 2002.

“It’s really refreshing to see the players have so much joy in doing something that people don’t expect,” Cougars coach Kamie Ethridge said Friday. “It’s fun to watch them go, ‘We expect it now, and we need to do that in the future.’ ”

WSU (22-10) set a program record for wins in a season when it defeated No. 3 seed Colorado 61-49 on Friday in the semifinals. A day earlier, the Cougars pulled off their first win against an opponent ranked in the AP top three, stunning No. 3 Utah 66-58.

Pac-12 Network / Youtube

The Bruins (25-8) upset top-seeded Stanford on Friday.

The Cougars’ defense has been stellar during the tourney, allowing 52 points per game. The Utes, who entered the game ranked in the top five nationally in scoring offense, were held to their lowest output of the season. The Buffaloes recorded their second-lowest point total of the year.

“I keep saying it – we’re better this year because we’re better defensively, consistently,” Ethridge said. “We’re deeper, we rebound better. Those things help you win in the postseason. We’re proving that this year. Hopefully, our offense is still getting better.”

But WSU’s stars have been productive and efficient enough to pull the team through rough offensive stretches. All-Pac-12 junior guard Charlisse Leger-Walker is averaging 17.7 points and shooting 41.3% from the field during the tourney. Center Bella Murekatete, an all-conference honorable mention selection, is playing at her best, averaging 15 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 55.9% from the floor in Vegas. The Cougars are also getting key contributions from role players like freshman guard Astera Tuhina and senior forward Ula Motuga.

The Cougars are 22-6 with Leger-Walker in the lineup. A three-time all-conference performer from New Zealand, Leger-Walker missed four games this season due to a death in her family.

“When I was gone for the four-game period, a lot of people had to step up in different ways,” Leger-Walker said. “The team got better when I wasn’t in the gym. I honestly think that helped us, especially down the stretch.

“I have so much faith in our team and the people who come off the bench. We’re a lot deeper this year, and people are playing different roles. We’re collectively stronger and better as a team. Obviously, you can see that in these last few games.”

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 Cougars’ first victory in program history at Pauley Pavilion. Leger-Walker missed the first UCLA game.

In the rematch, WSU led for over 34 minutes and held UCLA to 29% shooting.

The Cougars have won six of their past seven games and guaranteed themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament field for the third consecutive season. In ESPN’s latest bracketology, WSU is projected to be a No. 8 seed in the tournament.

Beating the Bruins would presumably secure WSU its highest NCAA tournament seed in four appearances. The Cougars were a No. 11 seed in 1991, a No. 9 seed in 2021 and a No. 8 seed last season.

This year, they’ll be looking for their first NCAA tourney win.

The Cougars join the Pac-12 Network’s postgame show Friday after beating Colorado.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)
The Cougars join the Pac-12 Network’s postgame show Friday after beating Colorado. (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

“It’s just unbelievably fun to see their tears of joy and reflection on what they’ve accomplished,” Ethridge said. “I hope this is the greatest ride I’ve been on with a team. I’m going to sit back and keep riding it.”

Ethridge took over a cellar-dwelling program five years ago and, within three seasons, built a competitive team – an NCAA Tournament contender in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. Now, Ethridge has the history-making Cougars near the top.

“The vision was, ‘Let’s turn this program around. Let’s do something that hasn’t been done before,’ ” Leger-Walker said.

“Seeing where we are now, it’s crazy,” Motuga added.