The wide eyes of last year’s NCAA Tournament are long gone.
The Washington State women’s basketball team is back at the Big Dance for the second straight season and only the third time in program history, and with all five starters returning from last year, the eighth-seeded Cougars enter today’s game against ninth-seeded Kansas State. with a maturity and confidence they didn’t have a year ago.
Tipoff is set at 8:30 a.m. PT for the first-round game at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
“It’s what you do 365 days a year to prepare and prepare,” Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge said Friday. “We want to put our best foot forward.”
Much of Ethridge’s nearly 20-minute press conference focused on how the fourth-year coach and his current scrappy group of Cougs rebuilt the team from a Pac-12 after the fact. to a tournament team.
WSU is 19-10 this season and already holds the team record for most wins in the NCAA era.
Much of that success began with a foundation laid last season when WSU went 12-12 and qualified for its first NCAA tournament in 30 years, where it fell 57-53 in a first round against South Florida.
Ethridge was also asked about the impact of the Leger-Walker sisters, Krystal and Charlisse – the dynamic New Zealand duo whom coach and players widely credit with helping to change the culture of the programme.
Charlisse Leger-Walker, a second-year goaltender, scores in a variety of ways and leads the team with 16.0 points per game. Senior guard Krystal Leger-Walker is a steadfast leader and all-around player who is amassing 7.9 points and 4.6 assists per game, which also poses a threat on the defensive end.
“I honestly believe it was like multiplication – it wasn’t just you add two players, they multiplied (their impact),” Ethridge said. “Whatever those two were, it felt like everyone in the gym had become a lot better (because of them).”
Add in returning starters Bella Murekatete, Johanna Teder and Ula Motuga, and it’s obvious the Cougs not only entered the season with high expectations, but managed to deliver on them.
Ethridge and the players say last year’s race was a valuable experience.
“I think this year we have a lot more experience being all here in the same position last year,” said Charlisse Leger-Walker. “I think we’re a little more boxed in, focusing on the things we can control: our scouting stuff, going to practice, knowing we need to have good practices.”
If the Cougars want to take the next step and claim the program’s first NCAA Tournament win, they’ll need to defeat one of the best collegiate players in the nation.
Kansas State features 6-foot-6 center Ayoka Lee, who shocked the hoop world when she set an NCAA record for most runs scored in a game with 61 against Oklahoma on Jan. 23. The junior averages 22.5 points per game.
“Lee is kind of unique,” Ethridge said. “We haven’t seen anyone like her and we certainly haven’t seen anyone who scored 61 on anyone. And we’re not really big so that’s a concern.
“We have to find ways to make life difficult for her, but then again, they have talent around her (too).”
Ethridge said she hopes the team’s tough non-conference schedule — which included a game against top seed NC State — coupled with the still-challenging Pac-12 schedule helps them against Lee and the Wildcats.
Although Ethridge knows the K-State program inside out — she spent 18 years there as an assistant — this is a team that will present players with new challenges.
“We can’t change who we are,” Ethridge said. “We just have to be who we are and we have to trust that this process has prepared us to play against K-State, so we’re going to do our best.
“You just want your team to try to manage the nerves and try to manage the moment and really just go out there and have a lot of fun and leave the pitch with no regrets.”