WSU women advance to first Pac-12 Championship

Cougars beat Colorado 61-49, play UCLA at 2 p.m. Sunday


Courtesy of Pac-12 Conference

WSU women’s basketball, the Crimson Girls and the WSU pep band crash the set of the Pac-12 Network for an interview as the Cougs clinch their ticket to their first Pac-12 Championship game March 3, 2023 in Las Vegas.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor

Colorado blocked Bella Murekatete’s shot sending the ball spiraling toward the Cougar bench, but Ula Motuga was waiting in the wing to catch the ball and take the shot. She drained the 3-pointer to put the Cougs back up by 10 with 3:27 left in the game. It. Was. Destiny.

WSU women’s basketball (22-10, 9-9 Pac-12) beat No. 20 and second-seeded Colorado (23-8, 13-5 Pac-12), 61-49 Friday in the Pac-12 Semifinals to advance to the program (and school’s) first Pac-12 Basketball Championship game. The Cougars came to Las Vegas and are living the dream; they just keep winning.

It at first seemed too good to be true. The Cougars came out of the gate swinging as they jumped to a swift 9-2 lead in the first quarter behind Bella Murekatete’s typical dominance in the paint. Tara Wallack made a basket and got to the free throw line and a picture-perfect jumper from Charlisse Leger-Walker.

Colorado clamped down defensively to keep the Cougs scoreless over the next five-and-a-half-minutes in the first quarter.

Jaylyn Sherrod disrupted numerous WSU plays to steal the ball and score points in transition.

Despite the Buffs’ best defensive efforts, the Cougar defense did not concede much either as two layups from Aaronette Vonleh were all Colorado could accomplish.

Vonleh scored a game-high 18 points and Sherrod, who last time out versus the Cougars scored a career-high 27 points, was contained to just 13 points on a 5-for-14 clip. She missed all four of her 3-point shots but provided six assists and five rebounds

After Jessica Clarke broke the Cougar’s scoring drought with a layup, the Cougs held the ball with a chance to score in the final seconds of the first quarter. Johanna Teder held the ball in the left wing in a Buff sea. With the clock winding down, she flung the ball to wide-open All Pac-12 Freshman Astera Tuhina who got the shot off. The ball bounces directly up off the rim and back through the basket producing two loud thuds to beat the buzzer before the quarter-break to keep the Cougs up 14-6.

In the second quarter, the Cougs relied on inside points in the form of three straight jumpers from Clarke and Murekatete. With her back to the basket, Murekatete twisted around to her right and made the marvelous hook shot to put the Cougs up 20-6 and cap off a 6-0 run.

The Cougs waited until the final minute of the quarter to make a three again as Leger-Walker drove toward the basket and snuck the no-look pass in Motuga’s direction to set up yet another picture-perfect 3-point shot to put the Cougs up 27-16 at halftime.

The third quarter is typically the Cougar’s best quarter. It is also Colorado’s best quarter as they earned the third seed by shooting 50% in the third quarter of their 73-70 win over ranked and Pac-12 Championship-bound UCLA Jan. 27, the third quarter is their prime quarter too.

Down by as much as 16, the Buffalos trampled the Cougs in the third, outscoring Wazzu 22-11 to tie the game 38-38 after 30 minutes of basketball.

It truly seemed too good to be true.

However, when the Cougs could have given up, their coach had other plans.

Ethridge told her team they were better than they were playing.

“I am probably harsh and demanding and I have great expectations on our team and so it was urgent to not keep self-inflicting ourselves with turnovers or bad decisions or giving in to the pressure that we were facing,” Ethridge said about what she told her team after the third quarter.

The Cougs had been in this position before. Sometimes they found a way to win, like when they conceded a 13-point fourth-quarter lead to Oregon only to come back and win 85-84 in overtime.

Other times, they lost, like their regular season finale loss to USC in which they allowed a 19-point second-half lead to slip away in a 68-65 overtime loss to USC, and of course their 3-point loss the last time they played Colorado after holding an 11-point lead late in the third quarter.

“Those are the scars that you build over the course of the season and as you grow as a team, and you’re gonna come across them so you might as well face it and that was the message: toughen up,” Ethridge said.

Toughen up they did. The Cougars outscored Colorado 23-11 in the fourth quarter. Although Colorado overcame a 14-point deficit to tie the game, the Cougs ensured they never led.

With the game even at 38, 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, Clarke threatened to pass the ball inside to Leger-Walker where she had been a lethal scorer all night. Colorado covered and Clarke pitched the ball outside the arc to Tuhina, who delivered another nothing-but-net 3-pointer to give the lead back to the Cougs.

With the game even at 41, Motuga stood confidently to the left of the key to sink another 3-pointer. Motuga only took four shots during the game, each of them 3-pointers, as part of her 9-point, six rebound, two assists and two block day.

Motuga was all over the floor and once again provided excellent defense all over the floor to minimize any damage Colorado could have made, a role she played in the Cougs’ epic quarterfinals win over No. 3 Utah.

“Think of that journey five years later and what [Motuga] stands for represents in the shots she makes and the leadership she has and what she’s done for our program,” Ethridge said.

Leger-Walker paced the Cougs in scoring with 15 points and one 3-pointer. She shot just 6-for-17 from the floor but the threat of her scoring provided other scoring opportunities for her teammates.

Leger-Walker spent more time out of this game than usual after she was hit in the nose.

Ethridge said she prefers not to take Leger-Walker out of the game but trusts her bench to step up and perform well.

Players like Tuhina and Grace Sarver stepped up on the floor. Tuhina scored 10 points and Sarver scored 2.

Murekatete continued her dominant stretch in the tournament with 12 points and eight rebounds on a 6-of-10 clip.

When the clock hit zero, the party could begin. At this point, the DJ knew what to do and fired up Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” and the Crimson Girls dance team and WSU pep band joined the team on the court to celebrate their historic accomplishment.

All three groups made their way to the Pac-12 Network set for a school-wide set-crash and after a heartfelt interview with members of the team in which Motuga and the Cougs extended an open invitation for Shania Twain to join the team in Vegas Sunday for the championship to sing the song with the team.

It was a day of upsets as just three hours earlier, No. 19 in the nation and fifth-seeded UCLA beat No. 6 in the nation and top-seeded Stanford, 69-65, after trailing by 16.

The Cougs will play in WSU’s first Pac-12 Basketball Championship game at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.