PULLMAN – Washington State is coming off its best season in program history – a remarkable campaign that saw the Cougars claim their first Pac-12 Tournament title and make a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in as many years.
This year, the Cougs might be better than ever. They look primed to make another run at the conference crown.
“It doesn’t feel like we have a lot of holes in our game,” sixth-year coach Kamie Ethridge said. “We’ve got weapons and we don’t have to be perfect to win games. … I think we’re built better than we’ve ever been.”
Still, the Cougs aren’t ditching their underdog mindset.
WSU went 23-11 overall and 9-9 in conference play last season, then swept through the conference tournament before falling to Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament – the Cougs’ third straight first-round exit at the Big Dance.
The Cougars bring back four key players from their title team, including All-American guard Charlisse Leger-Walker and one of the Pac-12’s best post players in Bella Murekatete. WSU added Idaho transfer forward Beyonce Bea, the No. 6 scorer in the nation last season (22.8 points per game).
The Cougs checked in at fifth in both the coaches’ and media preseason conference polls. They enter the season at No. 24 in the AP Top 25 poll.
“We might be picked higher than we’ve ever been, but there’s still a sense that we’re an underdog,” Ethridge said. “We probably won’t shake that chip on our shoulder that we bring to the floor, that our team feels and competes with and basically lives with every day.”
The latest round of conference realignment has also given WSU reason to feel slighted. The Cougs are uncertain about their future conference home in the wake of the Pac-12’s recent implosion. Ten member schools found new leagues to join next year, while WSU and Oregon State were left behind.
Ethridge said the Cougs are trying to keep their minds on the present, “the opportunities we have in front of us this year,” but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this will be the Pac-12’s final season as we know it. And it’s no doubt difficult for WSU to shrug off this feeling of disrespect.
Ethridge acknowledged that WSU’s current position in conference realignment relates to the team’s “underdog mentality – the lack of respect people have for us.
“We have to overcome that,” she continued. “We have to prove ourselves. I think that’s a great mindset to have, and it’s present in all of our teams across campus.”
So, it’d be quite a statement if the Cougs defended their Pac-12 title. And WSU has enough talent to do it.
“I think we have the potential to do bigger things than we’ve done in the past, whether that’s winning more games, going farther in the (NCAA) Tournament, and obviously making it back to the Pac-12 championship,” Leger-Walker said.
Of course, Leger-Walker is the main attraction. A four-time All-Pac-12 honoree, the senior will be expected to carry a significant scoring load once again. But she’ll have some extra help from Bea and Murekatete, who broke out in 2022-23.
Ethridge predicts WSU will be more consistent and versatile offensively than in years past, with three or four players in double figures in most games.
“It feels like we can score easier,” Ethridge said. “I think that maybe kept us from becoming super elite. In years past, it seemed like we always had one quarter where we scored nine or 10 points and it would bite us. For us to take that next step, we need to score 80 points, with multiple weapons and not just have Charlisse score 40 points. I feel like we have the depth and that lineup where (opponents) can’t be too soft on anyone.”
The Cougs should become a better rebounding team with the addition of the 6-foot-1 Bea. And their defense, which was bright last year, shouldn’t take a step back.
WSU’s backups lack experience, and the Cougs will have just eight available players during the early part of the season due to minor injuries, but Ethridge believes this will be her most complete team yet once everyone is healthy.
“There’s a great vibe in the gym. It feels like there’s more confidence,” she said. “There’s been a lot of good (practice) days, and not very many bad days.”
The Cougs lost two notable players from their Pac-12 championship team. Forward Ula Motuga graduated, but Bea will be a more productive scorer. Sharpshooting guard Johanna Teder is out for the season with an injury, but WSU has a more than capable replacement in point guard Astera Tuhina, who shined as a true freshman in a reserve role last season.
WSU opened its season with a 92-51 exhibition win over Montana Western on Sunday. The Cougars’ first regular-season game is Monday against Cal Poly in Pullman.