VILLANOVA, Penn. – Coach Kamie Ethridge ushered in a golden age for women’s basketball at Washington State.
Five years into her tenure at WSU, the program is better than ever. The fifth-seeded Cougars (23-10) meet No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Finneran Pavilion on the campus of Villanova.
Ahead of WSU’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, let’s recap the team’s rebuild, its most significant victories and landmark moments under Ethridge.
The breakthrough season
WSU went 20-41 overall and 8-28 in Pac-12 play over Ethridge’s first two years. She had to reset the program’s culture, create a winning attitude among her players and build the team in her vision. That takes time.
Of course, it helped that WSU’s roster had added a pair of standout sisters from New Zealand – Krystal Leger-Walker, who followed Ethridge out of Northern Colorado but had to sit out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules, and Charlisse Leger-Walker, who emerged quickly as a star during her true freshman season.
Early in Ethridge’s third season, it became evident that the Cougars had started to turn the corner. On Dec. 19, 2020, WSU picked up its first signature victory under Ethridge. The Cougars topped No. 21 Oregon State 61-55 in Pullman – the team’s first victory over a ranked team in four years. The win signaled a shift for WSU, which had gone 0-22 against ranked opponents over the previous two seasons.
Less than a month later, WSU raised its bar, defeating seventh-ranked Arizona 71-69 in overtime at Beasley Coliseum. Charlisse Leger-Walker tied the game late in regulation with a difficult layup and then converted a tough shot in traffic late in overtime to pull WSU to its first top-10 win in four years.
The Cougars were no longer an irrelevant Pac-12 team. At that point, WSU fans began to see the potential of the program as a competitor in one of the nation’s strongest conferences.
On Feb. 5, the Cougars hit another milestone, collecting their first win over an AP top-five opponent in program history. Charlisse Leger-Walker scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, and WSU upended No. 5 UCLA 67-63 in Pullman.
WSU finished the regular season with a winning record for just the second time since 1995. The Cougars claimed an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament – the team’s second March Madness appearance and first in 30 years.
Ninth-seeded WSU fell 57-53 to No. 8 seed South Florida in the first round. Ethridge said recently that the Cougars didn’t have enough depth or experience then to score their first NCAA tourney win.
WSU returned its entire roster in 2021-22. Fans likely assumed WSU would take another step forward and secure another NCAA Tournament berth.
There weren’t as many significant wins over highly ranked opponents, but the Cougars performed with more consistency and lived up to the expectations.
They swept Washington, went 3-1 against the Los Angeles schools and 2-1 against the Arizona programs en route to an 11-6 record in Pac-12 play and a second-place finish in the conference – WSU’s most conference wins in program history and its highest finish in conference standings.
WSU’s biggest win last year was a 72-67 decision against No. 8 Arizona on Feb. 20 on Senior Night in Pullman. Guard Johanna Teder, now a third-year starter, scored 21 points, and the Leger-Walker sisters combined for 27 in their final home game together.
The Cougars compiled a 19-11 overall record, setting a program record for wins in a season in the NCAA era. But by the postseason, they were running out of gas. Depth issues surfaced in eighth-seeded WSU’s 50-40 loss to No. 9 seed Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Outdoing themselves again
WSU had to replace a program great when Krystal Leger-Walker graduated, but the Cougars returned four starters, added an impactful freshman in Kosovo native guard Astera Tuhina and became a more complete team – one that had established a winning tradition, developing confidence through experience and success.
Charlisse Leger-Walker had already proven herself as one of the Pac-12’s top talents, and she improved as a junior. Center Bella Murekatete became a star in her fourth year as a starter. Teder and senior forward Ula Motuga reprised their roles as veteran leaders in the starting five.
A third straight NCAA Tournament appearance seemed like a safe bet.
There were some growing pains without Krystal Leger-Walker, to be sure. And the Cougars started 0-3 in conference play – WSU played without Charlisse Leger-Walker for two of those games. She flew back home to New Zealand on two occasions this season because her grandmother had fallen ill. Leger-Walker ended up missing four games, all losses.
WSU got back on track in January, earning road wins over ranked opponents Oregon and Arizona. But the Cougars endured a rough patch in early February, losing three games in two weeks, including a 33-point rout against Stanford in Pullman.
The team’s NCAA tourney prospects were up in the air entering the final stretch of the season, yet WSU finished strongly to remove any doubt.
The Cougars swept the Oregon schools at home, completing a season sweep of the Ducks and Beavers for the first time in program history. WSU topped No. 17 UCLA 62-55 in Los Angeles on Feb. 23 – the Cougars’ first win at Pauley Pavilion in 35 tries.
WSU captured its two biggest wins in program history earlier this month during a magical run through the Pac-12 Tournament.
After grinding past California in the first round, the seventh-seeded Cougars faced No. 2 seed Utah in the quarterfinals. WSU built an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Utes rallied, but Leger-Walker made a deep 3-pointer – a shot that will go down as one of the most memorable moments in school history – to put WSU ahead by six points with 8 seconds left.
The 66-58 triumph marked WSU’s first win over an opponent ranked in the AP’s top three. It gave the Cougars the momentum they needed to surge to the finish. WSU rolled past Colorado in the semifinals.
In the title game, the Cougars outlasted UCLA in a back-and-forth battle. Clutch plays late from Leger-Walker, Tuhina and Murekatete lifted WSU to a 65-61 win and the school’s first conference championship in any women’s team sport – also the school’s first conference title since the football team won the crown in 2002.
Leger-Walker took home tournament MVP honors and dedicated her performance to the memory of her grandmother. The three-time All-Pac-12 performer was named an AP All-American honorable mention on Wednesday. She is the second player in program history to earn that distinction.
The program’s rapid rise under Ethridge has been nothing short of incredible. Just four years ago, WSU was an afterthought, a team that had only managed a handful of successful seasons over about four decades as an NCAA program. Building a Pac-12 women’s basketball heavyweight in Pullman was largely considered an impossible task. But these Cougars soared from the depths of obscurity, climbing into the national spotlight.
The Cougars piled up unprecedented accomplishments along the way. This month, they achieved their highest NCAA tourney seeding in four appearances, set a program record for wins in a season and hit a high on the AP poll at No. 23.
Up next on their list of goals: winning a game at the NCAA tourney for the first time.