Cougars take their chances, win in first round of Pac-12 Tournament

WSU beat Cal 61-49 in first round of Pac-12 Tournament, play Utah 6 p.m. Thursday



WSU forward Ula Motuga passes the ball to guard Charlisse Leger-Walker during an NCAA basketball game against Oregon State, Feb. 19, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports editor

Ula Motuga stood at the free-throw line in a quiet Michelob ULTRA Arena. The Cal band screamed their best to distract her, but the fifth-year senior was not fazed.

Motuga stuck to the same routine she has followed throughout her college career as she closed her eyes, smiled wide and took a deep breath, her shoulders followed her breath up and down as any visible stress evaporated. She opened her eyes, dribbled, took the shot and was met with the smooth swish of the ball falling through the basket.

Motuga got all 4 of her points from the free throw line, including the Cougar’s 40th point, which tied the game with 11:37 to play.

The Wednesday win was Motuga and head coach Kamie Ethridge’s second Pac-12 Tournament win in their fifth year.

WSU women’s basketball (20-10, 9-9 Pac-12) beat California (13-17, 4-14 Pac-12), 61-49. The Cougar’s 12-point victory seemed like it could have been a 10-point loss until the end of the third quarter when Wazzu rallied.

The Cougars trailed by as many as 9 points early in the third quarter but enjoyed a signature red-hot third quarter in which they shot 72% from the floor.

Charlisse Leger-Walker did what she has done so many times before, leading her team in scoring and being a critical component of the win. She scored 23 points (8-for-15 from the field, 6-for-8 from the free throw line) and added six rebounds, two assists and a block.

Leger-Walker jump-started the Cougar attack by driving toward the basket and causing the Cal defense to panic.

The Cougs took only one 3-point shot in the third quarter, but their single shot was a thrill-and-a-half as it was Leger-Walker’s 3-pointer to punctuate a sequence in which the Cougs clawed back from a three-possession deficit to within 2 points.

The Cougs outscored Cal 40-22 in the second half after they missed three-quarters of their shots in the first half and allowed Cal to take easy paths to the basket.

When the team could have simply given up and headed back to a snowy Pullman for the weekend, Leger-Walker stepped up.

“For my leadership position, I just really want to make sure the team is positive, we’re focusing on the right things, you know we’re not getting at each other and we’re just focusing on what we need to do,” Leger-Walker said in her postgame Pac-12 Network interview.

Although the Cougars had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, they only scored 21 points, as they could not capitalize on their second chances. Thankfully, Cal also could not capitalize on their offensive opportunities as WSU tightened down when Cal got their own offensive rebounds.

WSU virtually eliminated Cal’s 3-point shot, forcing the Bears to find other opportunities. Cal was 1-for-10 from the 3-point line and shot no three in the second half.

The Cougs chose their shots well with some excellent looks, however, in the first half the Cougs were simply not making their shots.

Johanna Teder, the senior 3-point wizard, was three-less in Las Vegas as she was 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. Teder’s struggles reflected a trend on the first day of the Pac-12 tournament in which all 12 teams shot a combined 25% from three because of the unfamiliar environment and the varied sightlines and nerves that come with it.

Teder scored 6 points with three rebounds and three assists in a tough 2-for-11 day.

All-Pac-12 honoree Bella Murekatete’s focus on the glass helped the Cougs hold onto the ball and keep it away from the Golden Bears.

The senior center recorded her eighth career double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Murekatete found great paths to the basket and was a magnet for the ball in the paint pacing Wazzu in rebounds.

Murekatete said the team had been behind in games before and did exactly what they did before to win.

Astera Tuhina, the All-Pac-12 Freshman, stepped up with 9 points, three rebounds and four assists.

When Murekatete got into foul trouble (a reality provided by several calls from the Pac-12 referees that caused Ethridge and the Cougars to visibly protest in shock), Jessica Clarke stepped up.

The junior center scored one basket but provided necessary relief to Murekatete.

Tara Wallack scored 4 points in a tough 2-for-9 day but snagged seven rebounds and three assists.

WSU women’s basketball had won 20 games only once before in 1978–79 when they won 21.

Ethridge said the fact that the 20 wins were an NCAA-era (post-1982) program first for the Cougs was a sad reflection on the history of the program, but an accomplishment they take great pride in, as it means her and her staff’s plan for the program is working.

“I’m proud of the people we’ve recruited and what we’ve built in five years,” Ethridge said.

The Cougs suit up and play another game less than 24 hours after their first game ended with a 6 p.m. Thursday tip against the second-seeded and No. 3-ranked Utah Utes (25-3; 15-3 Pac-12)

“I’d like them to shoot like we did tonight,” Ethridge said as Leger-Walker nervously laughed. when asked what she is looking for in the Utah matchup.

Utah is the top-ranked team in the Pac-12. Although they are the second team in the tournament, they are the No. 3 team in the AP Top 25 poll as they have given teams grief all year long.

There was a fair contingent of WSU support, with several players’ families in attendance including a contingent of Motuga’s friends and family who each held a letter in their “WE [heart] ULA MOTUGA” sign.

After the win, Murekatete embraced the Crimson Girls, players flung heart hands toward the band, and Ethridge visited the band and Crimson Girls to thank them for their efforts playing and cheering in an environment where they were certainly the most youthful fans in attendance.

The Cougs play the Utes at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Michelob ULTRA Arena the Pac-12 Network will broadcast the game.