WSU women’s basketball wins first Pac-12 Championship

Cougars beat UCLA 65-61 in Pac-12 Final in Las Vegas, earn NCAA Tournament automatic bid 


Courtesy of WSU Athletics

WSU head coach Kamie Ethrige hoists the Pac-12 Championship trophy as her WSU women’s basketball team celebrates after beating UCLA 65-61 in the Pac-12 Championship, March 5, 2023 in the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor

Players embraced their families, loved ones, coaches and each other. The Cougars, thoroughly familiar with the Pac-12 Network’s court-side set, crowded around the desk with the Crimson Girls and the WSU pep band behind them. Crimson and Gray confetti rained onto the hardwood. Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” the team’s unofficial anthem, was sung by the whole team and fanbase. It was precisely what one might expect a championship celebration to be because it was one.

The WSU Cougars were Pac-12 Champions.

In the first basketball conference championship, not just in program history but in school history, seventh-seeded WSU women’s basketball (23-10, 9-9 Pac-12) beat No. 19 in the nation and fifth-seeded UCLA (25-9, 11-7 Pac-12), 65-61 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas.

The Pac-12 Championship was precisely what one might want from a championship game. It contained 13 lead changes with the final lead change happening early in the fourth quarter when Bella Murekatete scored on a fastbreak layup.

The Cougars’ scorching offense showcased their skill in the Pac-12 Championship when they shot 53% and made 7-of-11 3-pointers.

The Cougs are the first seventh-seed and the lowest-seeded team in Pac-12 Tournament history not only to win the Pac-12 Championship but make it to the finals in the first place.

The Cougars beat the 10th-seed California, the second seed and then-No. 3 team in the nation Utah and third seed and No. 20 team in the nation Colorado to advance to the program’s first Pac-12 Championship.

“We just believed in ourselves so much coming into this game. Oh my God there are so many thoughts going through my head right now but this team is legit,” said Charlisse Leger-Walker in her postgame on-court interview.

WSU guard Charlisse Leger-Walker drives to the basket during an NCAA basketball game against Stanford, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

In what will surely go down as a legendary post game interview, Murekatete captured the hearts of the nation with her response.

“We did everything together as a team and this team been proving everybody wrong every single game and we went through so much but guess what, it’s not how you start, it’s how you what?” Murekatete said as she angled the mic toward reporter Elise Woodward, who completed her sentence with an emphatic “finish.”

“How bout them Cougs!” Murekatete said.

Murekatete scored 21 points on an 8-for-11 (72%) shooting clip and added four rebounds, two assists and two blocks while Leger-Walker led the Cougs with 23 points on a 7-for-11 shooting day, made even more impressive by a 5-for-7 3-point clip.

Leger-Walker was named the Pac-12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

The two combined for a fantastic finals performance, the highlights of which Coug fans can expect to revel in for years to come.

The legendary afternoon began when Leger-Walker snagged an offensive board and flung the ball to Tara Wallack, who hit the first of the Cougar’s seven 3-pointers.

The teams traded baskets, but the Cougs led 10-7 until UCLA went on a 6-0 run. The Cougs relied on Murekatete to score 4 more points including a standup jumper from the high post.

WSU center Bella Murekatete jumps for a layup during an NCAA basketball game against UCLA, Jan. 22. 2023 in Beasley Coliseum.

UCLA’s star freshman Gabriela Jaquez added 3 points through a free throw and a layup before Kiki Rice gave the Bruins a two-possession lead after the first quarter, 18-14.

Jaquez scored just 5 points but added five rebounds while Rice kept the Cougs on their toes with 13 points on a 5-for-16 clip.

With the Cougs down 6 in the second quarter, the ball was in the hands of All-Pac-12 Freshman Astera Tuhina.

Tuhina, fondly known to her teammates as “AT,” used the screen set up by Jessica Clarke to navigate up the right wing to score a basket.

Charisma Osborne responded with a 3-pointer, her only one of the afternoon as part of a team-leading 19-point effort. Osborne shot 6-for-16 and 1-for-4 from deep.

After Osborne’s three and with the Cougs down by 7, AT set up Murekatete’s and-1 when she handed the ball off to Murekatete who broke free from two Bruin defenders on her contested way to the basket.

Murekatete’s 3-point play set up an 8-0 Wazzu run which included a Murekatete steal to feed the ball to Leger-Walker for the 3-point shot.

Senior Johanna Teder got in on the fun with a 3-pointer at the top of the key.

Earlier in the season, head coach Kamie Ethridge praised Tuhina for her knowledge and ability to direct the offense. The All-Pac-12 Freshman guard stepped up at the end of the second quarter and throughout the game when she sparked a series of ball movements that led to her passing the ball to a swift Leger-Walker who peddled out of Bruin coverage and got open behind the arc for the emphatic 3-point shot that put the Cougs up 32-28 at halftime.

WSU guard Astera Tuhina dribbles the ball during an NCAA basketball game against UCLA, Jan. 22.

Tuhina’s aunt, who lives in the United States, surprised her by coming to the finals. With her Aunt in the stands, Tuhina scored 6 points with six assists, three rebounds, two steals and a block.

UCLA opened the third quarter with a 12-5 run which included 3-point shots from Emily Bessoir and Rice. Leger-Walker scored another 3-pointer, but the Cougs trailed by 3 midway through the third quarter.

Murekatete said she had a bad third quarter but she certainly made up for any mistakes or lapses in defensive judgment by scoring 4 more points to take the lead against the Bruins after Leger-Walker made yet another 3-pointer to even the game at 40.

After 30 minutes of basketball, the Cougars led the Bruins 44-40 and were 10 minutes away from a Pac-12 title. They just had to finish.

The fourth quarter was a tense, high-scoring affair for both teams.

The Bruins tied things up yet again to start the quarter with a Lina Sontag jumper. Leger-Walker and Murekatete combined to score 12 of the Cougar’s 21 fourth-quarter points. The Cougs did not attempt a single 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, opting instead to hold onto the ball for as long as it took to score from the inside.

The Cougs relied on Tuhina’s smart plays to build their lead and Murekatete’s prowess in the post.

Tuhina stole the ball from the Bruins and drove down the court. She stopped as the Bruins put out any immediate fire by back peddling well. They had a chance to put out the fire a turnover can cause entirely, but they failed to account for Murekatete, who scored with not a single Bruin between her and the basket.

The Cougs led 46-44 with under nine minutes to go.

The Cougars’ most reliable scorers were reliable down the stretch of the biggest stage in program history. Teder ran up the lane from beyond the arc straight to the basket, Tuhina drove, stopped on a dime, turned around and nailed the shot and Murekatete dazzled in the post like she has all year.

WSU guard Johanna Teder goes up for a lay up during an NCAA women’s basketball game against Oregon, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

With 2:19 left and the Cougs up by 4, Murekatete found Leger-Walker in the paint. Leger-Walker threw the ball to Murekatete and ran toward the basket. She caught Bella’s bullet pass sidestepped and got the shot up off the glass, gaining the edge on Osborne and drawing a foul. And. 1. Textbook basketball.

Leger-Walker hit the shot and the Cougs led by seven, their largest lead of the game.

The Bruins scored five straight off of a Gina Conti 3-pointer and pair of Osborne free throws to once again trail by one possession.

With 37 seconds remaining and the Cougs leading by just 2 points, Murekatete stepped to the free throw line. She hit both shots, setting up the final sprint.

Rice slipped, but Leger-Walker was blamed by the referee as having caused her to fall, giving UCLA a break when they most needed it.

Rice hit both free throws and the Cougs once again led by just 2 points.

Leger-Walker found her way to the free throw line with an opportunity to ice the game. She made the first but missed the second, but that was okay. The All-Pac-12 junior had done more than enough and her team was ready to finish the job.

Senior Grace Sarver delivered the final blow. With UCLA trying to make something happen, Sarver was there wrestling the ball from the Bruins to procure a jump ball. It was the Cougars’ ball.

Wallack, who had not scored since her opening three, stepped to the line with her team holding a 2-point lead. She missed the first, but made the second, and it was all but done. UCLA got off one last shot and as the clock hit zero. Its final buzz was one of triumph for the Cougars, who jumped for joy.

Through the Championship t-shirts, net-cutting ceremony and celebratory photos, fifth-year Ula Motuga, who played just 12 minutes in the championship because of an injury but delivered key plays to get the Cougs to this point, shared a sentiment that is palatable in the minds of Cougar fans everywhere.

“I know it may be my last in the Pac-12, obviously, but I know it’s not going to be their last,” Motuga said.

WSU forward Ula Motuga makes a heart with her hands while leaving the court during her last game in Beasley Coliseum, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

Ethridge and her team were Pac-12 Champions when few expected them to even win more than one game in the tournament.

Ethridge has done for the Cougs, a historically underachieving program, what every college coach dreams of doing. She has transformed a program from a bottom-three team in the Pac-12 to a Conference Champion in five years.

“I don’t even think when I took the job I thought this was possible in this kind of league and these kinds of coaches ya know and the athletes that we’re going up against,” Ethrige said.  “If you get the right people in the right place that believe and work and are committed to each other, you can accomplish amazing things together.”

With their first Conference Championship, the Cougars earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament and will learn when and where they will begin their third-straight NCAA Tournament on the Selection Sunday show at 5 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.