WSU to ring in new year with Pac-12 play

Host No. 11 Utah at 4 p.m. Friday, Colorado at 4 p.m. Sunday



WSU guard Tara Wallack stumbles after being fouled during an NCAA women’s basketball game against Prairie View A&M, Nov. 13.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor

After the best season start in program history, WSU women’s basketball will face their toughest challenge yet to begin the bulk of Pac-12 Conference play. 

The Cougs’ 10-1 nonconference record is a part of the Pac-12’s 115-20 combined record against team’s outside of the conference. The best combined nonconference record in Pac-12 women’s basketball history 

WSU was 10-1 in nonconference play whereas Utah was a perfect 11-0 as part of their perfect 12-0 start.

WSU (10-2, 0-1 Pac-12) hosts the No. 11 team in the country Utah Utes (12-0, 1-0 Pac-12) Friday and the red-hot Colorado Buffaloes (10-3, 0-1 Pac-12) at noon Sunday at Beasley Coliseum. 

The Utes are one of five Pac-12 teams ranked in the AP Top 25, joining No. 2 Stanford, No. 10 UCLA, No. 17 Oregon and No. 18 Arizona.

If fans take into account the Cougs lone Pac-12 test up to this point, their 82-66 loss to University of Washington in the Seattle edition of the Apple Cup, it is easy to doubt that WSU will climb any higher in the Pac-12 than perhaps seventh place.

However, if standings were simply determined by early season performances and AP rankings, there would be no point to playing the remainder of the schedule.

The Cougs have a lot to prove against Utah, thanks to how last season’s Pac-12 play ended.

WSU saw their 2021-22 Pac-12 campaign come to a close in Las Vegas in the second round of the Conference Tournament in a 70-59 loss to Utah in which the Utes simply outpaced WSU the whole game.

Utah ran the table in Vegas. They advanced all the way to the conference championship where they met their match against the eventual national runner-up Stanford.

The Utes return to the Pac-12 Conference nine months later with most of their roster intact.

Utah lost Brynna Maxwell, the team’s third-highest scorer and leading 3-point shooter to the transfer portal. The Gig Harbor native now plays in-state at Gonzaga.

To replace and surpass her production, the Utes added forward Alissa Pili. She played three seasons at USC and is a three-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year out of Dimond High in Anchorage, Alaska.

Pili leads the Utes in scoring with 241 points. With her 20.08 points per game, she is third in the Pac-12 Conference in scoring behind Arizona State’s Ty Skinner (20.64) and Wazzu’s own Charlisse Leger-Walker (21.08).

Utah has five players shooting more than 50% from the field while no Cougar is shooting higher than Tara Wallack’s 48.6%. Leger-Walker and Ula Motuga are close behind with a 47.8% clip.

WSU cannot afford to start Pac-12 games like they have started many of their early season games. With poor shooting and dreadful defense in the first quarter, only to significantly turn things around down the stretch to (in most cases) win.

A slow start against Utah and potentially Colorado could be insurmountable.

To beat a team like Utah, WSU will need to capitalize on its early season goals of having four players score in double digits en route to at least 80 points a game.

WSU has only reached 80 points in four games this season but has scored at least 70 points in seven out of 12 games and won two games by the identical final score of 69-63. Both of those games happened to be top-five comebacks in program history with their 19-point comeback against Portland being the largest comeback in program history.

After Utah, Wazzu will ring in the new year with a Sunday game against Colorado.

The Buffs had a decent season last year and catapulted their success into the final four of the 2022 Pac-12 tournament and an NCAA Tournament berth.

In a crowded Pac-12, the Buffs are neck and neck with WSU for a chance to break into the AP top 25 and compete with the five ranked teams and the rest of the conference.

The Buffs started the year 10-3 and sport a resume that includes wins over Marquette and Boise State. In their toughest tests, they lost to a now 12-1 Texas Tech squad by one point in overtime (86-85) and by 15 to Tennessee and by 27 to No. 11 Utah.

WSU will need to look out for Quay Miller, a Renton native and UW transfer. Miller was a key component to Colorado’s 2022 NCAA Tournament run.

This season, she has been just as valuable leading the team with over 14 points per game.

After the mountain schools come to town, the Cougs must wait a week for their rematch with the UW Huskies at noon Jan. 8.

Similar to WSU football losing all five of its games to nationally ranked teams in the Pac-12 and beating all of the teams below them, women’s basketball’s return to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament and shot at a Conference title will largely depend on their ability to punch above their weight and beat ranked teams like Utah and beat the teams at their level longing to be ranked like Colorado and UW.

WSU lost to UW 82-66 Dec. 11 in their first meeting despite Leger-Walker’s historic 40-point day.

WSU will host Utah at 4 p.m. Friday and will host Colorado at 4 p.m. Sunday at Beasley Coliseum.