The Washington State women’s basketball team ended the 2022 NCAA tournament the same way they ended the 2021 tournament: With the sinking feeling that a big opportunity had just slipped through the Cougars’ fingers ... again.
Through 20 minutes, it sure seemed like the team was well on its way to its first NCAA tournament victory in program history, carrying a 7-point lead into the halftime break. Then, it all fell apart as the Cougars struggled mightily to score.
Mixed results with Lee
The Cougs started out with spectacular defense on Kansas State’s star center, Ayoka Lee, but it didn’t last long enough.
The 6-foot-6 Lee is as pure of a post player as you’re ever going to see in modern-day basketball, and the Cougs tried to capitalize on her lack of mobility by employing every kind of trick imaginable to deny entry passes — after all, Lee can’t score if Lee can’t touch the ball — including simply not guarding one of K-State’s players in order to double team Lee when she didn’t even have the ball. Additionally, the Cougs swarmed for rebounds; Ula Motuga nearly pulled in double digits by herself in the first half.
In fact, I thought Motuga was the team’s MVP in the opening two quarters. She wasn’t scoring, but she was everywhere in the first half, bothering Lee to no end.
As it turned out, that kind of energy was difficult to sustain. Fouls started piling up, the Cougars’ lack of depth in the frontcourt was exposed, and K-State made some adjustments to allow Lee to assert herself. The Wildcats changed their entry angles, and as the Cougars’ rotations inevitably slowed, passes thrown high that had been tipped started finding her hands. And once she catches around the basket, she’s absolutely deadly.
One puzzling decision WSU coach Kamie Ethridge made was keeping Bella Murekatete on the bench for the final 15:30 of the game after she picked up her fourth foul. It wasn’t a surprise she got subbed out, but it was a pretty big surprise that she never returned, given that Lee’s influence on the game continued to grow. At the very least, Murekatete provided some length to disrupt entry passes, and as the Cougs’ longest and most athletic frontcourt player, she might have given you a shot at some offensive rebounds on a day when WSU’s shooting was atrocious.
I suspect Ethridge was regretting that choice by the time the game ended.
“I just we could stretch the floor a little bit better (without her),” Ethridge said after the game. “You know, I’ll second-guess a lot of things. ... Tonight just felt like we didn’t have enough, you know, people that could shoot the ball and (we) needed to go to that, but, like I said, I’ll second-guess myself all the rest of the week.”
About that shooting
If we’re being honest, though, parsing those defensive decisions is very likely just splitting hairs. WSU held K-State to 50 points, a total that should have been good enough. The reason it wasn’t was because the Cougars shot an almost-unbelievable 2-of-18 (11%) in the fourth quarter, including 0-of-11 from 3.
While Charlisse Leger-Walker did everything she could to keep WSU in it — scoring 20 on 7-of-18 shooting while playing all 40 minutes — everyone not named Charlisse was 7-of-38 (18%) combined.
The biggest disappointment came in the form of Johanna Teder, who is supposed to provide the team’s secondary scoring punch but went 0-of-10 from the field with three turnovers and just one assist to go along with four personal fouls.
Additionally, the Cougars turned it over 18 times (26% of their possessions), and while 12 offensive rebounds looks like a lot, it actually represented just 28% of their misses.
It’s really, really hard to win when all that happens, no matter how well you play defense.
A lot of credit has to go to Kansas State, which is long and active on defense. But the Cougars certainly left points on the table.
Beyond the wide-open misses from beyond the arc, WSU just didn’t do enough to exploit Lee on defense. That probably seems like an odd thing to say about a player who averages 3 blocks, but hear me out. The Wildcats typically run a zone, and it’s immediately obvious why: Lee’s lateral foot speed is pretty poor, and her greatest asset is simply being tall near the basket. (To be fair, it’s a pretty great asset!) The Cougars looked prepared for that early.
However, Kansas State mixed in some man-to-man defense, and the Cougs looked like they were generally surprised by it and unprepared to take advantage. On the few times when the team was able to get Lee into a pick and roll situation and draw her away from the basket, WSU was able to exploit it with midrange jumpers when she was reluctant to come out, or blow-bys to the rim when Lee was slow to recover.
The problem, though, was that WSU generally didn’t purpose to get Lee in those situations, and when they did get by her to the rim, the Cougars looked like they were waiting for Lee to block their shot — even though she wasn’t really in the vicinity — and open layups were missed.
With nearly everyone presumably returning — most notably, Charlisse Leger-Walker — the expectation will be that the Cougs make it three tournaments in three years after making it back-to-back for the first time in program history.
That said ... things aren’t always linear, and it’s easy to see the spaces where WSU has to get better if it’s going to take another step forward. After all, the best way to try and win a game in the tournament is to get a higher seed and play (theoretically) less talented teams than the ones WSU has faced the last two seasons.
The most glaring hole comes from the departure of Krystal Leger-Walker, who has been a stalwart at point guard. She played a ton of minutes there over the last two seasons, as Ethridge had a tough time replicating her production with anyone off the bench. Maybe Kaia Woods, a midyear enrolee, is able to step into that role despite playing only minimal minutes this year; maybe Ethridge scours the transfer portal.
It would also be huge if Murekatete could continue her upward arc. She made big strides from last year to this, and another big jump is needed for WSU to consistently compete with the heavy hitters — Ethridge alluded after the game to Murekatete’s need to add some shooting to her repertoire. If the Cougs were able to add some more athleticism up front, all the better.
“We’re going to celebrate this year, and we’re going to be really proud of what we’ve achieved,” Charlisse Leger-Walker said, “but on the backside of that, you know, we can’t be satisfied with just getting to the tournament. Obviously, that’s a big achievement, second year in a row is, you know, amazing for us to get back here. But it’s now taking that next step and getting past this first game, getting past this first round, because I think we’re really capable of doing that.”