Cougars vs. Bears in round one of Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas

Cougs play Cal at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Las Vegas



WSU center Bella Murekatete drives to the hoop during an NCAA basketball game against Cal, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports editor

The fluorescent lights at every turn, the impression the world is at your fingertips and the promise of fortune just a game away makes Las Vegas the perfect site for the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament. 

The seventh-seeded WSU Cougars (19-10, 9-9 Pac-12) face the 10-seeded California Golden Bears at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

WSU women’s basketball is playing some of its best basketball in program history as they evened their all-time regular season win record from last season with their 19th win Thursday and first against UCLA in Los Angeles.

Although ending the regular season with a double-overtime loss to USC in which they conceded a double-digit lead certainly stings, the promise of a hard reset in which every team is 0-0 and the rules of the game are simply win or go home provides the necessary bounce back opportunity to a Cougars team hungry for their first Pac-12 Tournament win.

Fifth-year head coach Kamie Ethridge and her team have set a slew of program firsts this season, and have the chance to set a slew of program postseason firsts.

To do so, they need their stars to play like stars under the bright Vegas lights. 

Charlisse Leger-Walker, Bella Murekatete and Astera Tuhina each received All-Pac-12 honors Tuesday.

In their lone game against California, the Cougs won by 10 points (70-60)  in Pullman behind Leger-Walker’s 25-point performance. It was Leger-Walker’s best game since she returned from a trip to New Zealand for a family matter.

Cal kept things tight in the first half, with a tied game after the first quarter and a 2-point halftime lead.

However, Leger-Walker’s 44% clip from three and timely defense translating into more offensive opportunities kept the Bears at bay.

Ethridge’s first Pac-12 Tournament began and ended with a first-round loss to California 77-58 in 2019 in Las Vegas. The team has grown a lot since that first year under Ethridge and fifth-year Ula Motuga, who has been at Wazzu through all of it takes pride in seeing the team grow.

“We’ve been able to build a culture where success is now a thing. Special for the people who have been invested in us since the start,” Motuga said. “I can’t credit Coach E and the rest of the coaching staff enough.”

Motuga praised Ethridge for making basketball relevant in a city where it was not relevant before.

The Cougars are 1-3 against Cal all-time in the postseason with the lone win coming in the 2014 Pac-12 Tournament.

In 2021, the Cougs were the seven seed and beat Utah before they lost to second-seeded Arizona.

Last season, the Cougars earned a first-round bye in the tournament but faced a tough Utah Utes squad that outclassed them in every aspect. The Utes were the conference runner-up as they lost to Stanford.

The Cardinal and Utes enter the 2023 tournament as favorites.

The Cougars and Bears are the third game of the day, following the noon Arizona State versus UCLA and 2:30 Oregon vs. Washington games and preceding the Oregon State vs. USC game.

Winners on Wednesday advance to face one of the four teams who received a first-round bye. Between Stanford, Utah, Colorado and Arizona, the Cougs would lock themselves into a Thursday night date with No. 3 Utah, a team that just leapfrogged top-seeded Stanford in the latest AP Top 25 poll.

Although Las Vegas is a town ripe with distractions, all 12 conference teams know that an NCAA Tournament trip is three or four wins away, and in a conference in which five teams are ranked, seven have real tournament aspirations.

The Cougs begin their postseason journey with lofty goals at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Las Vegas. Fans can watch on the Pac-12 Network.