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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Pac-12 champion Washington State has big goals at NCAA Tournament

No. 5 seed Cougars face No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday

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PULLMAN — Addressing a crowd of Washington State supporters ahead of the NCAA Tournament selection show, coach Kamie Ethridge acknowledged her past two Cougars teams were “running out of gas going into the NCAAs.” As for this year’s team — it’s the opposite.

“It feels like we have a lot of energy,” Ethridge said.

“This team is different,” she added after the show. “We really feel like we’re on the upswing and we don’t have to worry about momentum. We’ve got a lot of momentum.”

The Cougars (23-10) are peaking in March. They swept through the Pac-12 tournament earlier this month, completing a magical run to claim the program’s first conference championship. On Sunday, the Cougars received their best NCAA Tournament seeding in team history.

Joined by a few hundred fans at the Alger Family Club Room at Gesa Field, the team celebrated its third consecutive berth to the Big Dance. The Cougars leapt from their seats when their logo popped on the big screen. With the 5 seed, WSU will open its stay at the NCAA Tournament against 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (32-3) on Saturday in Philadelphia. The game will be played on Villanova’s campus.

“Nobody’s satisfied right now,” Ethridge told reporters after the event. “We want to win some games at the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re a completely different team. We’re built better. We’re deeper. We have the experience factor. … We’re a better defensive team, a tougher team and a better rebounding team. Those things travel. That’s what we’ve gotta count on when we get to the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, we can get that elephant off our back.”

WSU will be seeking its first NCAA Tournament win in program history. The Cougars bowed out in the first round in 1991, 2021 and 2022. But the team has never been as talented as it is now. Without question, this season has been WSU’s best.

The Cougars, ranked a program-high No. 22 in the AP poll, beat three top-25 teams — including No. 3 Utah, the highest-ranked opponent WSU as ever defeated — during the conference tourney in Vegas, securing the first Pac-12 championship for any WSU women’s team sport.

“To accomplish something as great as that, it’s huge and it brings a lot of momentum, a lot of self-confidence and confidence within your team,” senior forward Ula Motuga said. “We’re feeling good about ourselves and we’ll be good to go when the ball is tipped against Florida Gulf Coast.

“We’ve just hit our stride.”

Last season, the eighth-seeded Cougars fell to Kansas State in the first round in Raleigh, North Carolina. No. 9 seed WSU lost to South Florida in the first round in 2021.

Within three seasons, Ethridge had built a competitive program in one of the nation’s top conferences. In her fifth year, the Cougars reached new heights, proving themselves as serious contenders in the Pac-12 — which is sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve come a long way, and that’s a testament to so many different people,” star guard Charlisse Leger-Walker said.

The Cougars developed from year to year, becoming a more consistent team and adding several reliable depth pieces. It helps that the bulk of WSU’s roster boasts NCAA tourney experience.

“We’ve been at the tournament three years in a row. Now, we have a lot of maturity and experience,” senior center Bella Murekatete said.

“We just have a lot more depth and players that are capable of making big plays. … In the past two or three years, we were playing six people. Now, we have a solid team and anyone can come and have a big impact.”

The Cougars are paced by Leger-Walker, a three-time All-Pac-12 first-teamer who captured conference tourney MVP honors. The junior from New Zealand averages 18.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Murekatete emerged as one of the Pac-12’s better post players in her fourth year with the program. She shined at the Pac-12 Tournament and enters the national tourney averaging 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

But the two are surrounded by steady contributors such as Motuga, a glue player who can get hot from 3-point range; freshman guard Astera Tuhina, an advanced defender and high-IQ ball-handler; Tara Wallack, a sophomore guard who’s been consistent as a first-year starter; and Johanna Teder, a veteran sharpshooter and standout perimeter defender.

“This year, we have so many different weapons,” Leger-Walker said. “Anyone can show out on any given night. That’s why we’ve got that excitement in the gym. Obviously, winning the Pac-12 helps with that excitement and motivation.”

Florida Gulf Coast sits at No. 36 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Eagles routed each of their three opponents at the ASUN Tournament to extend their winning streak to 14 games.

“Every team you play in March is a really hard team,” Leger-Walker said. “We’re not taking anything for granted, not being complacent. We have a track record of being good on the road (14-5 outside of Pullman), which is a positive thing. This is survive or go home. I’m confident in this team that we’ll have a good run.

“Getting that first-round win is something we’ve wanted to do the past couple of years. That’s obviously known in the gym and something we’re all thinking about.”

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