WSU women beat No. 3 Utah in biggest win in program history

Cougs hold Utah to season-low points, make 8 3-pointers, win 66-58


Courtesy of Pac-12 Conference

WSU women’s basketball sing Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” with the Crimson Girls after upsetting No. 3 Utah 66-58, March 2, 2023 at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor

With 39 seconds left and WSU holding a 3-point lead, the Cougars put the ball into the hands of Charlisse Leger-Walker, their best player, perhaps the best player in the Pac-12 Conference and one of the best in the nation.

Leger-Walker dribbled and stared down the Utes for what felt like an eternity, with each second adding an exponential amount of tension to the arena.

She pitched the ball to Ula Motuga, who tossed it right back at her. After gaining separation through the pass, Leger-Walker aimed and fired what could be the most iconic shot in program history to drain the three from the top of the key and put the Cougs up by two possessions with eight seconds to go.

On a thrilling Thursday night in Las Vegas, WSU women’s basketball (21-10, 10-9 Pac-12) upset No. 3 Utah (25-4, 15-3 Pac-12), 66-58 through a relentless defense and an electric offense whose scoring tendencies reflected the neighboring New York, New York rollercoaster; with a meticulous build-up followed a snowball of points and emotions.

“Everything leading up to that moment was just so good from our team, and obviously in those moments it’s a big-time shot, but the plays we made before that, the runs that we had in that third quarter and then taking that momentum into the fourth, that’s what really got us that win. I’m glad I could finish it off for our team, but just super proud of how we came out tonight,” Leger-Walker said.

When Leger-Walker pitched to Motuga, both players knew the ball was coming back to her.

“She deserved that moment more than anyone, and obviously she was able to deliver and we’re just super lucky she is on our team,” Motuga said during the Cougar’s postgame Pac-12 Network set crash.

The Utes had answers for many of the Cougar’s offensive attacks early in the game, but the Cougar defense was up to the challenge as they held Utah to a season-low 58 points.

Motuga’s guarding assignment for the night was Alissa Pili, one of the best players in the Pac-12 as she lead the conference in points per game with 20.6.

Time and time again, Motuga stood tall, keeping Pili away from the basket and containing the Pac-12 leading scorer to 11 points — 9 points below her season average. Five of her points came from a perfect 5-for-5 night at the free throw line but the other 6 were through a 3-for-14 shooting night from the floor in which she missed all four of her 3-point attempts.

“Every single time we’ve matched up with Utah, we do have a secret weapon in Ula,” said head coach Kamie Ethridge.

The Cougs began the game gaining points any way they could. After sophomore Tara Wallack grabbed the offensive board, she took the ball away from the basket, did a 180-degree turn, and sprinted back toward the basket for the reverse layup to put the Cougars on the board.

The first quarter continued to be contested as both Cougar centers: Bella Murekatete and Jessica Clarke snagged layups and visited the free throw line. Utah got the last laugh of the quarter as sophomore guard Gianna Kneepkens drained a 3-point shot to give the Utes a 16-13 lead after 10 minutes.

With Pili largely contained by Motuga, Kneepknens stepped up to lead Utah with 18 points. Although she was only 5-for-14 from the field and four of her made shots were threes.

The Cougars were dominant from beyond the arc, sinking almost half of their 3-point shots (47%) for eight 3-pointers throughout the game, while holding the best 3-point team in the Pac-12 to just five 3-pointers on a dismal 23% clip.

Wallack got the 3-point party started early in the third quarter. Leger-Walker ran across the floor, shifting the entire Utah defense. As defenders gravitated toward Leger-Walker, Motuga flung the ball to then wide-open Wallack in the right wing for the pretty three to bring the Cougs within one point of the Utes.

Murekatete was a force in the post. The Lisa Leslie Award nominee was on the scoring end of two dazzling assists.

The first was from Wallack in which she squeezed between Kneepknens and Pili to hand the ball to Murekatete to bring the Cougs within 2 points of the Utes with 6:44 left in the third.

The second was from Leger-Walker on the next possession in which Motuga found Leger-Walker in the left wing, who traced the baseline laterally directly under the basket where she attracted the attention of three Utes defenders. No Ute paid Murekatete any attention as the senior center was wide-open to receive Leger-Walker’s pass and make the layup off the glass.

Murekatete made the Ute defenders miss the entire game as she paced the Cougs in scoring with 19 points on a 50% shooting clip (7-for-14).

Johanna Teder ensured the fans at Mandalay Bay were familiar with her game when she stole the ball from Pili and ran down the court for a fast-break layup, a play she has made throughout her college career.

Teder’s steal and score capped off a 49-second 6-0 run by the Cougs to give them a 2-point lead.

However, Utah regained the lead two and a half minutes later.

The Cougs had impressed the whole night on all levels, but the end of the third quarter introduced the nation to the type of 3-point precipitation those on the Palouse have come to love and certainly prefer over the snow that littered the ground this week.

With Leger-Walker triple-teamed under the basket, she found Motuga waiting in the right wing. With her back to the Cougar bench, Motuga let her 3-point shot fly as it soared up and in to give the Cougars the 42-41 lead late in the third.

After a Wallack layup, Motuga would make the Cougar lead two-possession with her second 3-point shot in 70 seconds.

All Pili and any of the Utes could do was watch as the Cougar bench, fans, Crimson Girls Dance Team and band exploded with joy.

One particular fan in attendance was WSU superfan Brenden Potts. Potts, a senior WSU student, decided to become the number one Cougar basketball fan last season made his way to Las Vegas to support the Cougs.

“Brenden is one of a kind, super fan. Like if you know women’s basketball, Brenden is a part of this team,” Leger-Walker said. “We just love our Coug fans. They really got behind us today. We could hear them throughout the whole game.”

Leger-Walker ended the quarter with two 3-pointers of her own, one wide-open as Teder drove toward the basket and set up the shot perfectly and the next a fling from Motuga as Leger-Walker backed up, caught the ball and fired away a three. WSU had flipped the script with 14-0 run to end the third. The Cougars were unstoppable.

The fourth quarter was a bit dicey for the Cougs as Utah was not going to go down that easily. Kneepkens and Motuga traded threes to start the quarter and All-Pac-12 Freshman Astera Tuhina got her chance to score and give the Cougs a 14-point lead.

Then, the Utes went on a 14-3 run to make it a one-possession game with 39 seconds left. The stage was set for Leger-Walker and she delivered to clinch the Cougars’ 66-58 win.

History in the making

WSU women’s basketball advances to the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament for the third time since the tournament’s inception in 2002. The Cougs previously advanced this far in 2012 and 2014.

Ethridge can add another feather to her program-first hat as WSU’s win over the No. 3 team in the nation is the highest-ranked win in program history.

Five years into Ethridge’s tenure, the team is entirely comprised of players she recruited who have each bought into her message and program.

“They’re doing things that we’ve never done before,” Ethridge said. “So you just got to give them so much credit.”

Motuga was one of the first players Ethridge recruited and has seen the program evolve into the Pac-12 semifinal-bound team it is today.

“I can’t wait to see what they can do, what [Ethridge] can do with the program and how far how much further she can take it. But I mean, that’s gonna have to wait because we’ve still got a bunch of more basketball to play,” Motuga said.

WSU faces Colorado (23-7, 13-5 Pac-12) in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas. The Pac-12 Network will broadcast the game.