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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Title run by Washington State women’s basketball shows a sea change within a deep Pac-12

Washington State’s run through the Pac-12 Conference Tournament didn’t happen by accident. The conference as a whole has been as deep as any in the nation.  (Courtesy of Washington State athletics)
By Billy Witz New York Times

LAS VEGAS – When Ula Motuga, standing atop a ladder, clipped a strand of the net and raised her arms triumphantly overhead, of course she was admiring the view of her Washington State teammates, coaches and family members on the confetti-covered court below.

But it was hard for her not to gaze even farther into the distance – to a point five years ago, when she traveled halfway around the world from her home near Brisbane, Australia, to the Palouse on little more than a vision.

“It’d be lying if I told you I’d imagined this,” Motuga said, gesturing to the scene last Sunday after Washington State’s 65-61 victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament final to clinch the first conference title for any Washington State women’s team.

But here the Cougars were, carried by the vision that coach Kamie Ethridge laid out and led Sunday by Charlisse Leger-Walker, their maestro of a point guard. Leger-Walker earned the tournament’s most outstanding player award after a final in which she had 23 points, seven rebounds, three assists and innumerable moments when she bent the game to her will.

In their run to the championship game, which included knocking off second-seeded Utah in the quarterfinals and staving off third-seeded Colorado in the semifinals, the Cougars hardly looked the part of the seventh seed.

Except that this is the Pac-12, which may not have South Carolina (the unbeaten reigning Division I champion) or Connecticut (and all those national championships), but can confidently plant its flag as the most formidable women’s basketball conference in the country.

Pac-12 teams were 115-20 in nonconference games this season, their 85.2 winning percentage the best of any conference since 2011-12, excluding the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season. That resume has Oregon, which limped to a 17-14 finish, holding out hope that it will be selected for the NCAA Tournament despite being the ninth seed in the conference tournament.

After Washington State beat Colorado on Friday night to set up a final between the fifth and seventh seeds, Buffaloes coach JR Payne noted: “It’s not just, ‘Whoa, one team played out of their mind and upset somebody.’ They were the two best teams this weekend.”

That would not have been the case a decade ago.

Stanford owned the Pac-12 much the way that Connecticut dominated the Big East, Baylor ruled the Big 12 Conference and Tennessee reigned in the Southeastern Conference – with only occasional resistance.

“The joke was it was Stanford and the 11 dwarfs,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, whose team rallied from a 16-point deficit to upset Stanford in the semifinals.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, though, told the other coaches in the conference it did not have to be this way. She encouraged them to schedule strategically, to refrain from being negative when recruiting against one another, and to use their platforms to promote players around the conference, not just the ones on their own team.

“Everybody had to be willing to say we’re last in the Power Five, we have to take off our institutional hats and do this thing together,” Close said.

Since then, Stanford has reasserted itself among the nation’s elite, and others have intermittently joined the Cardinal. Stanford won the national championship two years ago, beating another Pac-12 school, Arizona, in the title game. Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and California have also reached Final Fours since 2013.

Utah, which ended the regular season ranked third in the Associated Press poll and earned a share of the regular-season conference title, is capable of reaching the Final Four.

The coaches’ bonhomie has remained mostly intact even in the transfer portal era, where players can bounce from school to school, even in the same conference. Ten players transferred within the Pac-12 after last season. Included in that number is Utah forward Alissa Pili, who has blossomed into a national player of the year candidate after transferring from USC.

“Any time you have the dynamics that are the overflow of the transfer portal, you have to deal with that stuff,” said Theresa Gould, the Pac-12 deputy commissioner who oversees women’s basketball. “But it hasn’t impacted our ability to band together when we need to be strategic.”