Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, the Washington State Cougars women’s basketball team is going to the FINAL FOUR.
Okay, not THAT Final Four. Not the NCAA Final Four that the UCONN Huskies will inevitably win, but the WNIT Final Four.
Despite a rocky season that has seen four players go down with season-ending injuries, the Cougars have played their best basketball during the WNIT tournament and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Let’s be honest: Washington State’s 12-19 regular season record was bad. Plain and simple. Seven games under .500, with a handful of games that were lost in the final few minutes doesn’t typically reflect a championship-caliber team. But let’s look beyond the paper and break down WSU’s regular season misfortune.
The team has played the majority of the season without its three top scorers. Junior forward Louise Brown, sophomore forward Bobi Hristova, and freshman guard Chanelle Molina went down with injuries which forced head coach June Daugherty to shuffle her rotations more than she ever has had to in her ten years at WSU. Brown went down with a foot injury just seven games into the season and two games later Hristova, an All-Pac-12 selection in 2015-16, joined her on the shelf two games later. Although a small sample size, Hristova lead the team with 14.7 PPG and Brown had 10.4 as well.
Despite those two losses, the Cougars looked good with Molina, a five-star recruit, running the point. WSU took down #7 UCLA 82-73 on January 6, the largest upset in program history and Molina was surely a bid for the 2016-17 Pac-12 All-Freshman team, but she tore her ACL at Arizona State later that month and effectively was done for the rest of the season. At the time of her injury, Molina was averaged 12.8 PPG in 25.3 minutes of work. And we can’t forget about her fellow Hawaiian Cameron Fernandez also got injured at ASU after a hard fall on the hardwood and has been out all year with a head injury.
Daugherty made plenty of changes, increasing the minutes of players like guards Krystle McKenzie and Johanna Muzet while moving Pinelopi Pavlopoulou and Ivana Kmetovska into the starting lineup. While the Cougars struggled offensively at first, the team received a bid to the WNIT tournament, their third in four seasons, being the 1st Pac-12 team NOT selected for the NCAA Tournament. And since then, they’ve thrived.
Going into the WNIT, the Cougars just had two road wins all season. This tournament alone they have three. They survived a shaky start in Provo against BYU to win 72-64, traveled even higher up in the mountains to Laramie where they took down the Wyoming Cowgirls in overtie 68-67. Their lone home game in the tourament was last Thursday against UC Davis and knocked off the Aggies 72-61 in the Sweet Sixteen. This past Sunday the Cougars hit the road once more to Iowa City where the Hawkeyes of Iowa waited and in front of 5,000+ in as hostile of a road environment the Cougs have been in all season, they kept their foot on the gas to win 74-66 and advance to the Final Four.
Oh, it’s also worth nothing that those four wins were the first four post-season wins i program history.
Tomorrow, the Cougars battle Georgia Tech in Atlanta for a spot in the WNIT Championship Game. Unlike the Iowa game which required a fee to watch, tomorrow’s semifinal against the Yellow Jackets will be streamed on ESPN3.com at 4 p.m. PST. Win tomorrow like they’ve got a meeting with the winner of Michigan - Villanova, a game which will likely be in Ann Arbor or Philadelphia on Saturday, April 1 at noon PST.
Regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s semifinal, WSU’s improbable run to the WNIT Final Four has been fun to follow and only makes one dream about the potential for a NCAA Tournament run next season if the team can stay healthy.