The Washington State Cougars 2022-23 magical season came to an end in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. This year, the season-ender being the 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, defeating the Cougs 74-63.
FGCU (33-3) took full control of the game in the third quarter, outscoring WSU (23-11) by 14 points and cruised through the final quarter in route to a date with the Villanova Wildcats in the Round of 32 on Monday.
“We just couldn’t quite match them, we didn’t guard them good enough to give ourselves a chance to win tonight.” Kamie Ethridge said.
WSU again just can’t seem to get over that hump and get their first win in an NCAA Tournament. This year presented WSU their best chance in four tries to capture it, but they just couldn’t get it done against a really good opponent. Credit to FGCU, they are an outstanding team that frankly, could’ve been seeded higher than 12.
The Eagles entered the game as one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country and if WSU was going to win this game, they needed to run the Eagles off the line early and often. They were able to achieve that in the first quarter, limiting the Eagles to just one trey on four attempts. With the Eagles contained defensively, the Cougars jumped out to quick start, going up 9-2 off a 7-0 run. FGCU countered with an emphatic 13-0 run, scoring their first 10 points in the paint, using their speed to get past the WSU defenders, and the capper being a three from Tishara Morehead. Grave Sarver snapped the run with a second chance bucket and Astera Tuhina beat the buzzer with an elbow jumper to cut the deficit to four heading into the second quarter.
Down six in the second, WSU found the hot-hand in Johanna Teder. A pair of Teder threes mixed in with buckets from Tara Wallack and Tuhina to push the Cougs back in front. WSU built on the foundation the trio of Cougs laid out and held a steady five point lead. The Eagles snatched momentum away from WSU before the halftime break with a pair of free throws and a Sha Carter bucket before the buzzer to cut the lead to just one.
As good as WSU had contained the Eagles three-point assault, the floodgates couldn’t hold out forever. Maddie Antenucci began to feel it with back to back threes to put the Eagles in front by six. She putting the finishing touches on her shooting masterpiece with a three that if it could talk, it would tell the Cougs it’s just simply not their day.
Just a completely asinine series of bounces. https://t.co/dSBQjHpwhW— WHEATFIELD UNDERDOGS STAN ACCOUNT (@CougCenter) March 18, 2023
This shot was the start of the dagger in the Cougs season. Not only were the Eagles starting to hit every shot, both Bella Murekatete and Charlisse Leger-Walker had to spend time on the bench with four fouls. The Eagles continued to balloon their lead with the Cougars stars in foul trouble, taking a commanding 13 point lead into the last 10 minutes of play.
FGCU shot a blistering 78.6% (11/14) in the third quarter alone, compared to WSU’s 30.8% (4/13) and two of seven from three.
“It was a competition of styles. We couldn’t get to our advantage with the size that we had in the post and they took advantage of our bigs on the perimeter with the ability to get by us and we didn’t do the right things in some of their drible drive stuff.” Ethridge said about the third quarter.
FGCU went on cruise control for the fourth quarter. Every WSU shot was immediately answered by the Eagles. Any hope WSU had for another miraculous comeback was eviscerated when Leger-Walker appeared to have drawn a charge, but was instead whistled for a blocking foul for her fifth foul, ruling her out for the final five minutes and leaving her with the same amount of fouls and points on the day. WSU scraped a few points off the bench in the closing minutes that would be all too little too late, as the celebration was already on for the Eagles.
An incredibly tough ending to such a magical season that saw so many program firsts, including a Pac-12 Championship. Yet that one program first still eludes them. The Pac-12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player put things into great perspective in her post-game presser.
“I’m so proud of how we’ve performed throughout the season. I think the most wins we’ve ever had, we won the Pac-12 which is something unheard of in most peoples eye’s, impossible for us to do. I don’t wanna take anything away from our season and what we have done. Only one team wins their last game in this tournament so it’s hard.” Leger-Walker said.
“Put yourself in the game, put yourself in the arena and if you do that enough times you’re going to knock through some doors. We did that at the Pac-12 Tournament this year, we have some work to do to get there in the NCAA Tournament.” Ethridge said.
WSU will have to say farewell to a trio of outstanding seniors that were part of Ethridge’s first group that helped lay the foundation for this program. A program that went from mildly relevant to competing for conference championships and making the tournament. Emma Nankervis, Ula Motuga and Grace Sarver, thank you for all that you’ve done for this program. You three will forever be legends in helping shatter program records and taking this team to unprecedented heights.
Maybe now isn’t the time for reminiscing as the sting of the loss clouds any thoughts on the joy that this team delivered over the past 131 days. And that’s alright. This one hurts. Maybe more than any other we’ve had before.
But, when that time comes to look back on this season, remember watching the Cougars stun the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion for the first time ever. Remember WSU knocking off the Utah Utes in the quarterfinals. Remember singing Shania Twain on repeat. Remember watching the Cougs accomplish something no other WSU program had accomplished in 21 years and winning the Pac-12 Championship.
This team will be back. This team will be better. They are talented, experienced, battle-tested and of course, champions.