Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge hopes NCAA Tournament loss is ‘gut-punch’ for returning players
March 18, 2023 Updated Sat., March 18, 2023 at 9:09 p.m.
VILLANOVA, Penn. – After her team’s remarkable season came to a bitter end, Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge said the Cougars should feel proud but unsatisfied.
“There are so many great moments in this season that we’re going to celebrate and not forget,” she told reporters Saturday after fifth-seeded WSU lost 74-63 to No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Finneran Pavilion. “But I hope it’s a gut-punch for the (players) that are coming back.”
WSU reached new heights this season, building upon the progress it made during the past two years. The Cougars went 12-12 in 2020-21, earning the program its first NCAA tourney berth in 30 years. WSU compiled a 19-11 record a year later and returned to the tournament. The Cougars bowed out in the first round both times.
This year, the Cougars (23-11) captured their first Pac-12 Tournament title, set a program record for wins in a season and achieved their best seeding at the NCAA Tournament. But WSU still couldn’t break through in the Round of 64, falling to 0-4 at the NCAA tourney.
Ethridge’s “biggest regret” – the Cougars’ three seniors, who’d been with the program throughout its build, will not be around for WSU’s first NCAA tourney win. Ula Motuga, a four-year starter and WSU’s record-holder for career appearances, has played her final game in crimson and gray. The Cougars will also lose Grace Sarver, a rotational guard from Seattle, and reserve post Emma Nankervis.
Motuga totaled four points and two rebounds against FGCU. Sarver had six points and three boards. Nankervis did not appear.
“My sadness falls on that we couldn’t do it for our seniors,” Ethridge said. “Those three, they are just as good as gold – character and loyalty, and the standard they carry and the voice they were. Everything about them on and off the court is what we want our program to be about, and I’m sad for our program that we couldn’t do it for them.”
The Cougars will return four starters next year – guards Charlisse Leger-Walker, Tara Wallack and Johanna Teder, and center Bella Murekatete.
Leger-Walker, Teder and Murekatete have experienced three NCAA tourney defeats. Guard Astera Tuhina, who played key minutes this year as a true freshman, will presumably slide into a starting role. The Cougars will also add Arlington High product Jenna Villa, a guard who recently earned Washington’s Gatorade Player of the Year award. Villa is the No. 68 prep recruit in the country, per ESPN.
The outlook is promising for WSU, which has transformed under Ethridge, becoming a contender after sitting in “the bottom of the barrel in the Pac-12” when she took the job five years ago.
“It’s a hard place to recruit, a hard job. That doesn’t matter if you get the right people … players that want to be great and are committed to being great 365 days a year,” Ethridge said earlier this week. “We built a culture, got great character people in our program. They were the foundation piece. We built a little more talent on top of them now for five years in a row. … It’s really a player-led culture. I don’t have to be the ‘behavior cop’ anymore. Seniors and upperclassmen have everybody in line and teach the young ones how to be, how to train and how to sound like a championship team.”
WSU’s best player, Leger-Walker, will head into the offseason motivated to make another jump after tying a season low with five points and shooting just 2 of 10 from the field (1 of 7 from 3) against FGCU.
“Her outside shot has gotta become more sniper-like,” Ethridge said of improvements she expects from Leger-Walker. “I think she has the ability to shoot at a higher percentage. We just have to do a better job as coaches of getting her to good spots on the floor. Her post-up game could be better. We had one summer to work with her on her individual stuff and we’ll get her again this summer. … We’ll get real concentrated and detailed on how we can improve her game and put her in better positions on the floor where she’s more effective.”
The junior from New Zealand, a three-time All-Pac-12 performer, became a more efficient scorer this year and earned an AP All-America honorable mention nod. She will play with New Zealand’s national team this summer, then rejoin the Cougars, “hungry to come back and help the team get past that first round.”
“I guess you can take (the season) in a positive way and think of how much we have accomplished as a team. I’m so proud of how we’ve performed throughout the season,” Leger-Walker said. “It’s something unheard of in most people’s eyes – impossible for us to do. I don’t want to take anything away from our season and what we’ve done. But only one team wins the last game in this tournament. So, it’s hard.”
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