Washington State aim to begin new tradition with NCAA berth

Before the start of the season, Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge pointed to the rafters at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman and asked her team to note the lack of banners.

It was a powerful visual that resonated with her players. The Cougars had been to the NCAA Tournament just once, back in 1991.

Now, 30 years later, Washington State is back. But Ethridge and the Cougs want to say that they did more than just make the tournament field — they’re looking for lots of banners to hang.

“I want to do well — but I think this is just a building block,” Ethridge said. “We’re going up from here. We’re going to create a great environment here and we’re going to change this tradition.”

Washington State is the No. 9 seed in the Mercado Region, facing No. 8 South Florida on Sunday night in Texas. But it gets tougher for the Cougs: If they get past the Bulls, they’ll face top-seeded North Carolina State in the second round.

In a conference perennially led by powerhouse Stanford and the more recent successes of Oregon and Oregon State, the Cougars were picked by the media to finish last in the Pac-12.

“I just love the story behind it, the fact we’ve only been to one (tournament) in our entire history and that one was 30 years ago. I told the team it’s just a neat story,” Ethridge said. “We want to become relevant in women’s basketball, we want to become a household name in women’s basketball and a top program in the country. And this was the first step”

The Pac-12 has six teams in the tournament, marking the fourth straight year the league has had six or more teams in the field. The Cardinal, top seed in the Alamo Region, will make their 34th tournament appearance when they play No. 16 Utah Valley on Sunday. Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA also earned berths.

The Cougars’ season was inconsistent in a season marred by the coronavirus, but along the way they knocked off two teams ranked in the top 10, a first in school history.

They also were ranked — albeit briefly — in the AP Top 25 for the first time ever. The Cougars were the only team from a Power 5 conference that hadn’t yet been included in the rankings.

Their biggest win came at home against No. 5 UCLA in early February. Freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker had 28 points, including 13 in the final quarter. It was the Cougars’ first-ever win over a top 5 team.

But Washington State (12-11) lost their next four straight games, ultimately putting the team on the bubble to make the tournament.

The Cougars are led by a pair of sisters from New Zealand, Leger-Walker and her big sister, Krystal. Charlisse tops the team with an average of 18.9 points a game, while Krystal averages 10.

“We had a lot of doubters. Going into the Pac-12 ranked 12th, we knew what people thought of us,” said Charlisse, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. “The first day in the gym, I said, ‘This is a team that can do something special.’ And we’ve proved that. This is just the beginning, and I think over the next couple of years you’ll definitely see a lot more like this.”

Krystal Leger-Walker is a transfer from Northern Colorado, where she played in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 — under Ethridge. The Cougs’ coach is in her third season after a four-year stint with the Bears.

Coincidentally, Washington State’s game against South Florida (18-3) is being played at the University of Texas-Austin, where Ethridge was an All-American.

While there’s obviously challenges to attract kids to Pullman, especially in a conference that has such strong women’s teams, Ethridge believes there’s value in building new traditions.

“I think there’s something to that, to be that kind of character and that kind of competitor that’s willing to go out on a limb and take a chance on programs that haven’t done it,” Ethridge said, “but then reap the rewards and be a part of climbing up that mountain.”

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More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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