The Washington State Cougars took another step on Wednesday toward their first NCAA tournament selection in 30 years when they beat the Utah Utes for the third time this season, a 57-48 victory in the opening game of the Pac-12 tournament.
The Cougs (12-10 overall, 9-10 in the Pac-12) have another chance to bolster their resume today when they take on third-seeded Arizona in the quarterfinals tonight at 5 p.m. on Pac-12 Network. WSU beat the 11th-ranked Wildcats earlier this season for one of their signature wins.
The big question, of course, is whether the Cougars have already done enough to secure their place in the NCAA tournament. ESPN has had the Cougs as one of the “last four in” for a couple of weeks now, so, at the very least, the Cougs have avoided the dreaded “bad loss” down the stretch, having beaten Utah twice and Washington once in the last three games.
But ... as we’ve talked about before, whether WSU has “done enough” is always a trickier question to answer than most like to acknowledge, since the Cougars aren’t operating in a vacuum — the target is one that moves depending on the achievements of the other teams who are competing against WSU for one of those final at-large bids. It’s hard to imagine that the Cougs could be left out, though, if they can secure another win against the Wildcats.
It’s also certainly helpful that another team on the bubble — Colorado, which beat the Cougs in Pullman a couple of weeks ago — crashed out of the Pac-12 tournament with a loss to the woeful Huskies.
The Cougs never looked like they were in any real danger of suffering a similar fate against the Utes, but they also had a hard time really grabbing and retaining control of the game as Pac-12 freshman of the year Charlisse Leger-Walker struggled to one of her weaker shooting performances of the season.
After a first quarter that saw each team hold multiple leads, both teams’ offenses went cold to start the second quarter, as neither scored in the first 3:30. That changed when Leger-Walker hit a 3 to give WSU a two-point lead, and it broke the Cougs out of their funk — Grace Sarver and Johanna Teder each hit 3s over the next couple of minutes, and Sarver added a 2-point jumper as the Utes continued to remain scoreless until there was just over 3 minutes to go in the half and the Cougs held a 10-point lead.
But the Utes cut into the deficit over those final three minutes, closing on a 6-0 run to leave the Cougs leading by just four points at halftime.
WSU asserted itself to open the second half, largely behind Bella Murekatete. The sophomore center has struggled with inconsistency this year but has excelled against the Utes, and she scored 7 points in a 10-0 run that pushed the lead out to 14.
“I was really happy with Bella tonight,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “I thought she was a great presence. She’s working so much harder at being big inside, and giving us someone to throw to. I love that she gets good numbers because she works so hard.”
Still, the Utes wouldn’t go away, answering back with an 8-0 that only was ended by a Leger-Walker layup that grew the lead back to 8 heading into the 4th quarter.
The Cougs were able to push it to double digits, again, early in the 4th after Krystal Leger-Walker hit a 3, but — again — Utah wouldn’t go away. A quick 7-0 run over the course of about a minute trimmed the WSU lead to 3 with 6:15 to play and it felt like it was “hold onto your butts” time.
That’s when Charlisse Leger-Walker decided to stop messing around with the jump shot that had abandoned here. She purposed to get into the lane and repeatedly punished the Utes at the free throw line — a 9-0 run that included 6 free throws from Leger-Walker pushed the lead out to 12 with just over three minutes to play more or less sealed the deal.
Murekatete had the best statistical line of the game with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and 12 rebounds, but it was really Krystal Leger-Walker who was the engine in this one. She scored 12 points — many of them timely to shut down a Utah run — with 8 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal. Charlisse Leger Walker finished with 15 points on 16 shots with 8 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals, while Ula Motuga had 7 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks.
“I think we’ve had games where (Charlisse is) the only one that has scored, and these guys who play a lot of minutes, no one else around her does,” Ethridge said. “We’ve got to balance that out. I thought Utah did a great job on Charlisse. I thought she missed some unusual shots tonight, but it’s a big game and its a big moment and the first time in this place, and I expect her to be better tomorrow.
“But it gives us a lot of confidence when we can win games when she’s not her best and other people step up and make big shots.”
Washington State women hold off Utah's late rally, win 57-48 | king5.com
Freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker scored 15 points as seventh-seeded WSU beat No. 10 seed Utah 57-48 in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament.
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