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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Fifth-seeded Washington State, seeking first NCAA Tournament win, set for first-round matchup against 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast

March 17, 2023 Updated Fri., March 17, 2023 at 5:29 p.m.

Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge instructs her team during the first half of the Pac-12 championship game against UCLA on March 5 at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. The Cougs, who claimed the Pac-12 title, open the NCAA Tournament on Saturday against Florida Gulf Coast.  (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge instructs her team during the first half of the Pac-12 championship game against UCLA on March 5 at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. The Cougs, who claimed the Pac-12 title, open the NCAA Tournament on Saturday against Florida Gulf Coast. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

VILLANOVA, Pennsylvania – In a tournament setting, the Washington State Cougars should feel comfortable.

They can draw confidence from their most recent tourney showing. And they can draw composure through experience.

Two weeks ago, WSU completed a remarkable run through the Pac-12 Tournament, winning four games in five days to claim the program’s first conference championship. The Cougars are back in the NCAA Tournament, and many of their players have been on this stage before.

“We’re definitely leaning on that experience a little bit,” said guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, one of four WSU players who started in the team’s NCAA Tournament games in 2021 and 2022. “Being here the last two years, a lot of us know what it’s like.”

The Cougars (23-10) have been rattling off unprecedented accomplishments for their program over the past three years. Still, one feat has eluded them – winning a game at the NCAA tourney. WSU is 0-3 at the tournament.

But the Cougars had never been more prepared for this moment . Chalking up an NCAA tourney victory seems like a reasonable expectation for the best team in program history.

Fifth-seeded WSU meets No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast (32-3) in the first round at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Finneran Pavilion.

“Everybody knows, especially the players – we all know how hard it is to win in the NCAA Tournament,” fourth-year center Bella Murekatete said Friday during a news conference on Villanova’s campus. “It’s just another challenge. We gotta stick to the scout, know what we’re here to do and lean on our experienced players.”

Despite their success in arguably the nation’s top conference and their highest tourney seeding in program history, the Cougars are one-point underdogs against the Eagles, who are riding a 14-game winning streak. FGCU, from the ASUN conference, is a regular at the NCAA tourney, having qualified for the event in each of the past six seasons. Last year, the 12th-seeded Eagles stunned fifth-seeded Virginia Tech – FGCU’s third upset win in the first round of the tournament since its first appearance in 2012.

“There’s definitely a little ‘Cinderella-ness’ around us,” Eagles guard Sha Carter said.

FGCU leads the nation in 3-point makes (11.8) and attempts (31.4) per game, and ranks No. 17 in scoring offense (78.1 points per game).

“They dribble-drive you to death and they love the 3,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “Pretty much everybody can shoot it and drive it.”

The Cougars have the upper hand in height. FGCU’s tallest player stands at 6-foot. The Eagles often spread out along the perimeter, so WSU’s post players will be forced defend outside of the paint.

“It puts your bigs in a bind, because you gotta guard them on the perimeter and handle penetrating players … without fouling,” Ethridge said. “At the same time, you’d think we would have an advantage with our size if we can get to it. That’s where the matchup is interesting: Can we get to our advantage, or are we going to be stuck in their advantage?”

The Eagles’ potent offense hasn’t faced a defense as strong as WSU’s. The Cougars allow an average of 60.9 points per game and a 30.2% mark from beyond the arc. WSU’s defense was stellar at the Pac-12 tourney, limiting its four foes to an average of 54.25 points per game. The Cougars held Utah – a top-five scoring offense in the nation – to a season-low 58 points.

“We were all kind of in our stride at that point, connecting and playing as a team,” Leger-Walker said of the team’s Pac-12 Tournament performance. “We want to take all the good things in how we performed in that tourney and take it into these first games.”

The Cougars received exceptional efforts at the Pac-12 tourney from their standouts, Leger-Walker and Murekatete. A three-time All-Pac-12 performer out of New Zealand, Leger-Walker averaged 19 points and shot 45.6% to earn conference tournament MVP honors.

“She’s so much more than an offensive player,” Ethridge said of Leger-Walker, who also earned an AP All-America honorable mention nod. “I think she’s one of the best defensive players I’ve ever been around. Her mind and commitment to the game, her IQ and her feel, then just her leadership abilities within the team (have been impressive traits).”

Murekatete averaged 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds during the week in Las Vegas as the Cougars completed their transformation – from afterthoughts to champions in a few short years – and set themselves up nicely for the NCAA Tournament.

“We came into this program institution, into a program where winning wasn’t really a thing,” said fifth-year forward Ula Motuga, who has been with the program throughout Ethridge’s time. “We went from nine wins my freshman year, to in my super-senior year, winning the championship in the best conference in the country.

“It just speaks to who ‘Coach E’ is as a leader and who her assistants are as people, and what they’ve been able to do, in terms of recruiting. You look at these two (Leger-Walker and Murekatete) and their growth is a testament to their hard work and what ‘Coach E’ is about. I think this program is truly on the upward drive and you can see that through our results in the past.”

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