For the first time in program history, your Washington State Cougars are Pac-12 Tournament Champions! The Cougars defeated the UCLA Bruins 65-61 on Sunday in an incredible back-and-forth championship game.
The Pac-12 Tournament’s most outstanding player, Charlisse Leger-Walker, led the way with 23 points on 5-of-7 shooting from downtown. Canadian sophomore Tara Wallack knocked down an ice-cold free throw in the final five seconds to push the lead up to four and secure the Cougars their Pac-12 crown.
I said it last year and it rings truer than ever: “It’s unbelievable that the unbelievable has become believable.” The program that couldn’t even win a Pac-12 tournament game not that long ago just went out and beat California, #2/3 Utah, a top-25 Colorado team and another top-25 UCLA team fresh off beating the mighty Stanford Cardinal.
It’s reality now. We knew how good and dangerous this team could be at full strength. While this is still a spectacular and magical run by this team, we always knew they were capable of doing this. This is no fluke. The Washington State women’s basketball team is THIS GOOD.
UCLA wasn’t going to just roll over and let the Cougars complete their magical run so easily. After all, they just defeated arguably one of the best teams in the country less than 48 hours ago.
On the biggest stage the Pac-12 could offer, these two teams put on an incredible display that was worthy of the spotlight. The back-and-forth battle started early and lasted all 40 minutes.
The first quarter was a testament to how the entire game would go. The teams traded buckets early, with no team going up by more than four. UCLA’s 6-0 run midway through the first quarter only put them up by three.
The Bruins rolled into the second quarter with a three from Charisma Osborne to put them up seven. As is the standard for these Cougars, they wouldn’t be deterred. Bella Murekatete kicked off the surge for the Cougs with an emphatic and-one. After a UCLA turnover, Leger-Walker began her own run with a trey and a pair of free throws a minute later to take a narrow one point lead. Senior guard Johanna Teder jumped in on the fun with a three and free throws of her own to keep WSU in the lead. With under a minute to play and the Cougs leading by just one, Leger-Walker came free off of a off-ball screen for a wide open trey to push the lead to four before the half
UCLA amped up the pressure on the Cougs to open the second half with an 8-0 run to take a four-point lead. With the Cougs struggling to create any offense in the first four minutes of the half, Jessica Clarke got WSU on the board with a good move inside on Emily Bessoir. Leger-Walker made it a run with another three to retake the lead. While UCLA made another run, Leger-Walker again shut down the Bruins momentum with her fifth three-pointer of the game.
On the next possession, Wallack hit a cutting Murekatete who went right to the rack to put WSU back on top before the end of the third quarter.
10 minute separated WSU and history. The Bruins were in desperate need for a fourth quarter run like they got against Stanford on Friday night and WSU wouldn’t let them have it. Every big UCLA shot was immediately answered by the Cougs. But the Cougs weren’t just getting it done on the offensive end.
Not many freshman get tasked with playing in championship games, let alone in a tightly contested fourth quarter. But the ultra-talented Astera Tuhina was more than ready for the bright lights and big stage. Tuhina took advantage of an off-line Bruins pass, intercepting it and pushing the ball down the court. The Bruins great transition defense was able to cut off Tuhina before she could get to the basket. But the interior defense lost track of Murekatete, who blew by her defender and Tuhina hit her in stride for the open layup.
On the next possession, UCLA got Bessoir open on an in bounds play for an open look from three. The three would have given the Bruins the lead back. Murekatete broke free from the screens and blocked Bessoir’s go-ahead shot. The improvements Murekatete has made over the years were put on display all tournament long and especially in the biggest game in program history. She has worked relentlessly to improve her game all around. Her post moves, her lockdown defense, her playmaking has all taken huge leaps. She is the definition of hard work paying off.
WSU reeled in the rebound off of the blocked shot and pushed ahead. UCLA again stopped WSU’s fast break before it could get straight to the rim. Leger-Walker passed the ball back outside to Teder, who flew past her defender and banked in the contested lay up to push the lead back up to four. Teder has been a such a reliable go-to scorer for the Cougs when they needed a bucket throughout her three years.
UCLA responded with a Charisma Osborne jumper from the free throw line to pull back within two. Once again, WSU stopped UCLA from building on any momentum they had. Tuhina tried to attack the lane and despite the Bruins stopping her before she could get inside the paint, she scored anyway with a beautiful turn around fadeaway.
The Cougars continued to counter any progress the Bruins made and even opened up a bigtime 6-0 run with three paint buckets to give WSU the largest lead of the game at eight with just over three minutes remaining.
You could start to feel it. They were almost there. The finish line is in sight.
With the championship on the brink of getting away from the Bruins, Osborne came up clutch with back-to-back scores to keep UCLA in it. Time and time in this game, WSU had every answer to UCLA’s chance at gaining momentum. It was time to do it again and who else but Leger-Walker to do it. Murekatete floated a perfect pass into the outstretched arm of a cutting Leger-Walker. She reeled in the one-handed catch with her left hand, switched it to her right, drew the contact and hit the off balance lay up. And. One. It was like the game slowed down in that moment for her. Everything that she needed to do in that one second to get that result had to be perfectly smooth and she made it look effortless.
Leger-Walker is no stranger to the big stage in her WSU career. She’s hit all the big shots, game winners, made the perfect pass, got the clutch defensive stop. Whenever the game has been on the line, the team has looked to her ever since she was a freshman during the 2020-21 season when she was hitting game winners in empty arenas due to the pandemic. This season has been especially hard for her. She’s had to miss games to fly back to New Zealand to be with family during an incredibly tough time for them. For her to come up big on the big stage again after everything she’s been through mentally, physically and emotionally is truly remarkable.
Down seven with just over two minutes to go, UCLA made another big push. Gina Conti drilled a big three and Osborne added a pair of free throws to make it a one possession game. With under a minute to go, the Cougars needed a response. Leger-Walker floated a high arcing pass into Wallack, who took it to the rim for lay-up that rimmed out. The ball was tipped out right to Tuhina, resetting the shot clock. After bleeding some more clock, Murekatete drove to the rim and drew a foul to send her to the free throw line.
In her first season, Murekatete shot just 51.7% from the charity stripe. She worked tirelessly to improve that and get up to 71.6% this season. That hard work prepared her for a moment like this. Championship on the line, needing to hit both to push the lead up to two possessions. She calmly hits the first, then hits the second. Cougs lead by four with 37 seconds remaining.
Now it was UCLA’s turn to respond. Kiki Rice drove to the rack guarded closely by Leger-Walker. Getting around to the left side, Rice slipped as she tried to go up for the contested lay-up. However, the ref deemed that Leger-Walker caused Rice to fall, calling her for the foul and sending Rice to the free throw line. Rice hit both to bring the lead down to two.
After a WSU timeout, the Cougars got the ball into Leger-Walkers hands forcing UCLA to send her to the free throw line. Leger-Walker hit the first and missed the second. A rarity for the 83.3% free throw shooter.
It all came down to this. 20 seconds to go. Cougs up three. Pac-12 championship on the line. Rice drove inside and couldn’t get the layup to fall. A mass of bodies jumped for the rebound that went off multiple hands and out of bounds off of Leger-Walker’s hand. Looking to tie the game, Osborne airballed an off balanced three from the corner that was very well defended by Tuhina. Lina Sontag rose above everybody for the rebound and bringing it down. Grace Sarver doesn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet night in and night out for this team. However, she’s an incredible defender and a great hustler. The senior put that on display when Sontag brought the ball down. Sarver reached in and tried to wrestle the ball away from Sontag. The refs blew the whistle, jump ball, possession arrow: WSU. The senior who hasn’t started a game in her four year career came up with the biggest defensive stop in program history.
On the inbound, the Bruins fouled Wallack to send the sophomore to the free throw line with everything on the line. Wallack hadn’t made a shot since giving WSU their first points of the game with a three 44 seconds into the game. The 69% free throw shooter just needed to hit one to ice the game. She missed the first. The pressure grew larger. She has to make this one. She took a deep breath, dribbled the ball once and released. Nothing but net. The Bruins desperation three missed off the backboard and for the first time in program history, the Washington State Cougars won the Pac-12 tournament.
The year before Kamie Ethridge arrived, WSU won just three Pac-12 games. This team won four in five days to win the conference tournament. The only time they had ever made the tournament was in 1991. They will be going to their third straight and don’t even have to wait for Selection Sunday to see if they are even in the dance. In five years Ethridge has built a championship winning program from the basement of the Pac-12. A program that had never really even had sniffed success at the highest levels at one of the hardest places to become a championship program in the power five. There is no doubt that she is among the greatest coaches in WSU athletics history.
Washington State University has never been a powerhouse, championship winning school. The last time a team won a conference title was back in 2002 when the football team won a share of the Pac-10 title after going 10-2. This was the first women’s program to ever win a conference championship. Seeing these images of players wearing championship t-shirts, hoisting a trophy in the air, crimson and gray confetti falling from the rafters, it doesn’t come very often. If there was ever a team worthy of feeling all the feelings that come with a championship, its this one.
“I don’t even think when I took the job I thought this was possible in this kind of league and these kinds of coaches and you know, the athletes that were going up against. It just is a testament to anything's possible.” Ethridge said. “If you get the right people in the right place that believe and work and are committed to each other, you can accomplish amazing things together.”
Leger-Walker was named the tournament’s most outstanding player and given an incredible introduction by her teammate Ula Motuga.
The champs arrived back in Pullman late last night to a party waiting for them right outside the airport.
There are so many more words I could continue to write about how special this group is. But their story isn’t over yet. In fact, it may be just beginning. WSU will wait a week for Selection Sunday on March 12th at 5 P.M. PST to see when, where and who they will play in the opening round. A top four seed would allow the Cougars to host the first two rounds at Beasley Coliseum.