Making their return to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament for the first time in 30 years, the No. 9 seeded Washington State Cougars’ stay was a short one, as they lost a heartbreaker to the No. 8 seeded South Florida Bulls, 57-53.
WSU ends arguably its best season ever with a final record of 12-12. USF advances to face No. 1 seeded North Carolina State in the second round.
As has become de rigueur for WSU, the game was a tight one that came down to the wire.
After USF took a 9-point lead into halftime and WSU erased it with a 17-3 run in the first five minutes of the third quarter, the remaining 15 minutes were a slugfest between a pair of tough, physical teams.
“I loved our fight, I loved our spirit,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “It’s just what we’ve been all year. Came out in the third quarter and ... put ourselves in position to be in another close game against a really high quality opponent. I think in every sense of the word we gave ourselves a chance to win the game.”
WSU trailed by 5 with four minutes to play, but the Cougars got back-to-back 3-pointers from Charlisse Leger-Walker and Johanna Teder to take a 1-point lead at 53-52 with 1:48 to play in the game.
But Elena Tsineke — who led the Bulls with 18 points — was able to turn the corner and get to the rim on a drive, barely eluding the outstretched arm of WSU center Bella Murekatete, who was searching for her fourth block of the game. The ball banked in, and USF regained the lead.
As it turned out, it was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Leger-Walker tried to put WSU back up on the next drive, getting into the lane with her left. She was clobbered as she tried to lay it in, but no foul was called and the USF secured the rebound, underscoring the inconsistent nature of the officiating in the game — which also featured a pair of blown calls against the Cougs earlier in the quarter where USF was the last to touch the ball before it went out of bounds.
The Cougs got another shot at it, though, after Krystal Leger-Walker hounded Tsineke into a turnover, scrambling on the ground to get the ball and call a timeout with 43 seconds to go. With game still hanging in the balance, there was only one place to go with the ball: Right back to Charlisse.
WSU went to a play they had used a few times to get the ball into her hands at the top of the key coming off a screen. She caught it with the option to either shoot or drive ... but she was in between those two minds and shuffled her feet to turn it over.
“That was just a mind blank from me — I think that’s all it was,” Leger-Walker said. “I knew the big was going to come out and help, and I just second-guessed myself a little bit. Bad play from me. It just sucks, looking back at it.”
After the intentional foul, USF hit a pair of free throws to extend its lead to three. Charlisse Leger-Walker had one more crack at it, electing to drive for the quick(ish) 2 with 15 seconds to go. She was searching for contact around the rim, but the Bulls were keenly aware that a foul was about the only thing that could hurt them — the defender backed away and Leger-Walker’s layup missed badly.
USF hit one of the two ensuing free throws with less than 10 seconds to go, and the game — and WSU’s historic season — was over. The Cougs had come back so many times this season, but couldn’t get all the way back in this one.
“It’s just how it is,” Ethridge said. “They just made a couple more game-winning plays at the end of the game, and we didn’t make enough shots tonight to get ourselves a win. Obviously very proud of my team.”
Despite the stumbles down the stretch, Charlisse Leger-Walker once again was the engine that drove the Cougars. She finished with a team-high 18 points with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal. Teder provided the secondary scoring punch with 16 points including 4-of-9 3-pointers. Murekatete was third with 6 points, but she did most of her work on the defensive end, picking up 8 rebounds and 3 blocks.
“When Bella decides that she wants to be a presence and she wants to play, she’s an amazing athlete, amazing player, especially on the defensive end,” Leger-Walker said. “I think she really came out in the second half and showed that and proved how good she can be.”
After more than two weeks off since they were eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament, the Cougs looked to suffer no ill effects early on, holding a 15-13 lead after the end of the first quarter. WSU’s interior defense was making life extremely difficult for USF, as the Bulls were really only able to generate any offense in transition. Their vaunted offensive rebounding was nowhere to be found.
But then ... the second quarter came. And something clicked for the Bulls — or maybe it was just the randomness of the universe. Whatever it was, USF absolutely caught fire: The Bulls shot 11-of-16 from the field, including 3-of-5 on 3s, to surge ahead. It wasn’t like the WSU defense had broken down; most of the shots were tough, making the outcome unexpected for a USF team that has struggled to shoot most of the season.
As usual, it was good for WSU that they had Charlisse Leger-Walker, who scored the Cougs’ final 7 points over the last three minutes of the half in order to help them weather the storm. WSU trailed 38-29, and it could have been so much worse.
Still, this is a WSU team that has come back on multiple occasions this year. Their toughness is their hallmark, and it was on full display during a roaring comeback in the third quarter.
USF’s hot shooting cooled off as the Cougars got back to the tenacious defense they started with. Then, they finally started finishing some shots on the interior as WSU started to find Murekatete rolling off of screens — including this insane pass from Charlisse Leger-Walker:
Teder then hit back-to-back 3s to complete the comeback, giving WSU a 2-point lead, 41-39. Each team had taken its swing with a haymaker, setting up the wild final 15 minutes.
WSU now looks ahead to next season, in which everyone is expected back — including Charlisse Leger-Walker, who will be a freshman all over again, and including fans, who will hopefully pack out Beasley Coliseum for a season that could turn out even better than this one.
“It’s a sad day, but in my mind, I’m pretty happy because I know what I have in the gym and I know how hard they’re going to work to get back here,” Ethridge said.