This one’s for Shalie; Cougars route the Utes in emotional contest

Washington State’s women’s basketball team had one simple motto Friday night that sparked their second half comeback against Utah: Play for Shalie.

The Cougars (12-6, 3-4 in Pac-12) lost senior center Shalie Dheensaw last Friday to a knee injury against Oregon State and her absence provided a hole in the first half and an emotional spark in the second. Senior guard Tia Presley, who was quiet in the first half, led WSU on an 18-8 run in the final 6:19 to seal the 63-54 win over the Utes (6-12, 0-7) last night.

With 6:36 remaining in the game, WSU took their first lead with a Lia Galdeira layup, making it 45-44. Prior to that basket, the Cougs had been holding close, even getting to within a point of the Utes at times. But once WSU got the lead back, 48-46 with 5:38 to go in the game, Presley and Galdeira took it upon themselves to take full control of the game.

“We knew if we wanted to win this game we were going to have to get stops,” Presley said on the Cougars’ second half turnaround. “That’s what we’ve been talking about in all our timeouts. Our main focus was pressuring the ball and trying to get steals and make their players feel uncomfortable. In the last couple minutes we did that, and I think that’s what was able to seal the deal with the game.”

Presley had four steals and five of her team-high 17 points in the final six minutes of the game. Galdeira added eight of her 14 points in the closing minutes as well. Both had a poor first half – Galdeira with six points and Presley with eight – but showed their true grit late, something head coach June Daugherty was happy to see.

“I’m proud of our kids. I thought we toughed it up,” Daugherty said on her team’s resiliency in the second half. “We sat down and said ‘we’re going to find a way, we’re going to do it on the defensive end.’ It takes guts, it takes courage to do that, and our kids definitely rose up and got it done.”

But for all the positivity the Cougars showed in the second half, the first half was one to forget. With freshman forward Louise Brown making only her second career start, the first ten minutes of the game were rough for WSU. The Cougars started the game shooting 1-for-9 from the field, while Utah came out gunning, jumping out to a 16-9 lead with 10:39 left in the first half.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking getting the start and also being in the jump ball but I got the tip,” Brown said on her second start. “I’m slowly getting more comfortable. Obviously we’ve had a huge loss to our team so we’re trying to pick it up a little bit and do the best we can.”

However, despite giving Utah open look after open look, the Cougs never found themselves completely out of the game. Their largest deficit was nine and they cruised into halftime only down seven due in large part to a three minute scoring drought for both teams.

Washington State upped their tempo to start the second half and pressured Utah from the get-go in an effort to speed the game up. The result was the Cougars’ ability to hang in just long enough for their emotion, driven by the loss of Shalie, to fuel their comeback.

Presley cut the lead to 41-39 after converting both of her free throws with 13:41 remaining in the game. Then the Cougs defense kicked into gear, creating another scoring lull that spanned just about four minutes before Utah forward Taryn Wicijowski converted her second free throw attempt after missing the first.

From that point on, Washington State controlled the game and routed the Utes. They led with defense, driven by heart and the loss of Shalie.

“Wasn’t pretty, no doubt about it, wasn’t pretty,” Daugherty said of the win. “Credit our kids for staying tough and showing their heart. They’re playing for Shalie. It’s not the most beautiful basketball right now, but we’re going to keep working hard and stay together.”

Up next for the Cougs is Stanford on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Beasley Coliseum. The game can also be seen on the Pac-12 Networks.