After the Zags (1-1) drilled a desperation three at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, WSU (2-0) held the Bulldogs to just five points and 1/7 from the field in the five minutes of extra time to secure the hard-earned victory.
“Those are the kinds of matchups we need right now. We need to get a little more seasoned on how to handle and manage the good and the bad that comes our way. Really grateful we can play this game and they’re as quality of an opponent we’ll play all year.” Kamie Ethridge said.
Prior to tipoff, WSU held a pregame ceremony to honor the 2022-23 championship season. The players each received their dazzling championship ring and watched their first Pac-12 Championship banner be raised to the Beasley Coliseum rafters.
“I’m just so happy it was this kind of a crowd that our team could experience. I think it was worth it because it was a Pac-12 Championship. I think we needed that and I think it validates our kids and makes them feel good about what they accomplished.” Ethridge said.
Once again, the Cougars were sluggish out of the gate while their opponent couldn’t miss. The Zags hit seven of their first 12 shots and hit all four of their free throw attempts, while the Cougs couldn’t get out of their own way with nine turnovers. The slow start allowed Gonzaga to open a 12-4 lead before the Cougs cut the lead to six before the end of the quarter.
WSU’s offense finally began to find some life midway through the second quarter. Charlisse Leger-Walker dished a pass inside to Beyonce Bea for a lay-up to bring WSU within four. As the Cougs looked back to setup on defense, they saw their teammate Astera Tuhina already coming up with a steal on the inbounding pass and passing it off to Eleonora Villa for a layup to bring the game within a possession.
“She wasn’t looking and I was right there and I went for the ball and it worked.” Tuhina said.
On the next possession, Bea tied it up with a second chance layup off the rebound. Defense was the story for the Cougs in the second quarter, holding the Zags to 3/13 from the field and nabbing two more steals, cutting the deficit to one before half.
Just like the first game, the Cougs came out of the half with their hair on fire. Leger-Walker gave WSU their first lead of the game with a layup on the Cougs first possession of the half and Tuhina extended it to four with a trey. Jenna Villa kept the momentum rolling with a fantastic off-balanced underhand layup while being fouled for the and-one. The Zags quickly rallied with seven points on three straight possessions to retake the lead. A tug-of-war for the lead carried into the last minute of the quarter as the veterans Bella Murekatete and Leger-Walker teamed up for the final four points before the buzzer to give the Cougs a four point edge.
Those four points were just the start of an 11-point Cougar run to extend the lead to a game-high 10 points. Tara Wallack opened the final 10 minutes with a layup off a Leger-Walker dime and a pair of free throws. Wallack then passed the torch to Leger-Walker for a three point play the old fashioned way. With 6:27 to go, the Zags began to march up the 10-point mountain, slowly chipping away until the game was within a point on a Kaylynne Truong three with 51 ticks to play. An ill-advised Cougar turnover and foul sent Gonzaga to the line where Kayleigh Truong knocked down both to flip the one point lead to the Zags with 26 seconds left.
When WSU has needed a bucket in the last four years, they’ve turned to Leger-Walker and time and time again, she’s come through. In last year’s Pac-12 tournament, she drilled a deep three in the quarterfinals vs Utah to secure the upset win. And again in the championship, she came through with a huge and-one to push the lead to seven in the final minutes. With the shadow of the Pac-12 championship banner looming over Friel Court, Leger-Walker worked her magic again, scoring on a quick reverse layup. A Bea block on the other end recovered by Wallack and passed off to Leger-Walker sent her to the charity stripe with 14 seconds to go. The Waikato native calmly knocked down both to push the lead to three. A foul on the other end sent Brynna Maxwell to the line to bring it back within a point. Tasked with being cool as the other side of the pillow at the free throw line again, Leger-Walker hit both her free throws and the Cougs seemed to have the game in hand up three.
With only six seconds left, Gonzaga would need to fly down the court and heave up a three to try and tie the game. Which is exactly what they did. Kaylynne Truong was mobbed by her teammates after draining a desperation three at the buzzer to send the game to an extra five minutes of play.
Both teams headed into overtime down some big pieces. WSU’s Murekatete and Gonzaga’s Kayleigh Truong and Yvonne Ejim all fouled out in regulation. Down one, Leger-Walker flipped the lead with a layup and Tuhina her second trey of the game to push it up to four. Kaylynne Truong responded with yet another big three but Bea was quick to get the lead to three with a layup on the other end. Gonzaga got another chance to tie the game with possession and 40 seconds to play. WSU’s defense gave Gonzaga nothing, forcing Kaylynne Truong to heave up a heavily guarded jumper by Leger-Walker as the shot clock expired that missed. Bea collected the rebound and the Cougars perfected getting the ball up the court and away from any Bulldog defenders trying to foul, eventually finding Eleonora Villa wide open for a game sealing layup.
“I think this team, they’re ok with being resilient. They’re ok with a little bit of failure and they’re not too emotional. I think that’s a lot about Charlisse, [Tuhina] is like that, Bea’s like that, so solid not so emotional. It’s a good mix for our team that aren’t going to get too up or down on good and bad.” Ethridge said.
“That was just really fun. That’s why you play basketball, for the games like that.” Leger-Walker said.
Leger-Walker, despite scoring only four points in the first 20 minutes, finished the game with a game-high 26 points.
“The luxury of this year is we have so many people who can score. I think that’s a great thing. I think a lot of times, the people who are watching expect me to put up big scoring numbers and a lot of people don’t realize how much scoring power we have on the team this year and I’m happy to facilitate and get people open and give them opportunities to score. I don’t think it’s necessarily a stepping back or stepping into a Charlisse mode or whatever you want to call it, it’s just how our team is built this year and I think it’s an awesome thing, just the depth we have.” Leger-Walker said.
The Cardiac Cougs return to action on Sunday at Beasley Coliseum against Idaho State.