WSU women’s basketball out in first round of NCAA Tournament for third straight year

Cougs lose to highest 3-point shooting team in country, 74-



WSU guard Tara Wallack stumbles after being fouled during an NCAA women’s basketball game against Prairie View A&M, Nov. 13.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor

Maddie Antenucci’s third 3-pointer in 72 seconds conveyed in one swift stroke whose side destiny was on as it bounced, not once, but twice off of the rim and a third time off of the top of the backboard to fall through the hoop for what was then Florida Gulf Coast’s largest lead of the game at 49-40.

The fifth-seeded WSU Cougars were one and done in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year as they lost to the 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 74-63 in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Finneran Pavilion on the campus of Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania.

The Cougars started the game hot with a 9-2 run in which WSU exhibited most of their offensive strengths.

Senior Johanna Teder found All-Pac-12 junior Charlisse Leger-Walker under the basket with a quick pass from the top of the key to set up WSU’s opening points.

The opening 9-2 Wazzu run also included a Teder 3-pointer and a pair of Bella Murekatete free throws after the senior center drew a foul on the pick-and-roll pass from Leger-Walker.

The Cougars capped their early dominance with fifth-year Ula Motuga holding the ball with her back to the basket and forcing the defender back with her until she turned around and fired the layup.

Leger-Walker’s quick 2 points would prove to be her only points of the first half as the Eagles locked down one of the best players in the Pac-12.

Scoring-wise, Leger-Walker was practically eliminated as a threat by the Eagles because they treated her like the premier player she is.

Leger-Walker also got into significant foul trouble, which affected her defense down the stretch allowing the Eagles to tack on basket after basket late in the game.

“I just feel horrible about my performance tonight,” Leger-Walker said. “Obviously, very, very hungry to come back and help this team get past that first round. Obviously the last three years we haven’t managed to do that.”

The junior guard finished the game with just 5 points (2-for-10, 1-for-7 from three) and one assist before fouling out with five minutes remaining.

With Leger-Walker in foul trouble late in the game, the Cougars needed to step up. Sophomore Tara Wallack tallied 16 points and 12 rebounds. Wallack’s third career double-double is only the second double-double by a Cougar in the NCAA Tournament as she joins Darci Wellsandt who posted hers in the program’s inaugural dive into the NCAA Tournament in 1991.

Wallack shot 5-for-11 from the field, 2-for-5 from deep and 4-for-8 from the free throw line.

The Cougars held FGCU, the nation’s best 3-point shooting team, to just three 3-pointers and they were each scored by the same player, Antenucci, in the span of just over a minute.

The remainder of FGCU’s nearly unstoppable offense was a result of the Eagles playing small and finding easy lanes to the basket when Wazzu failed to take up space on defense.

The Cougars found several solutions to this and were successful at implementing them and moving quickly on their feet to prevent easy FGCU 3-pointers and an easy drive to the basket. At one point, the Cougs forced the Eagles to shoot a less-than-ideal shot with their back up against the shot clock.

With Leger-Walker largely contained, freshman Astera Tuhina found herself in a familiar position of needing to direct the offense. She stepped up as her standup jumpers punctuated the first quarter and opened the second quarter.

Tuhina scored 9 points with six assists and four rebounds. She was 3-for-13 from the floor and 1-for-8 from deep.

Leger-Walker, Tuhina and Wallack each made well less than half of their 3-point attempts, whereas Teder came ready to make it rain in Philadelphia.

The senior sharpshooter saw three of her five 3-point attempts fall and only attempted and made one shot from inside the arc to make for 11 points on a 4-for-6 shooting day.

Right before the break, FGCU moved the ball around the floor to find Sha Carter for the basket. Carter had a career night in the big dance as she scored 24 points to help the Eagles complete another upset.

The Eagles were the 12 seed as well last season and completed a similar 12-5 upset of Virginia Tech.

The Cougs led by 1, 32-31 at halftime.

The third quarter is typically a quarter of WSU dominance in which the Cougs pull away, catch up or otherwise overwhelm their opponent. On Saturday, WSU was on the receiving end of a dominant third quarter as the FGCU Eagles shot nearly 80% from the floor.

The Eagles made more shots from the field in the third quarter (11) than Wazzu did the entire second half (eight).

In the fourth quarter, the Cougs had to choose whether to play Leger-Walker or Murekatete, their two most impactful players, as both were in foul trouble.

When Leger-Walker was one foul away from being out, she did not challenge certain Eagles shots as much, helping FGCU build a convincing 13-point lead after the third quarter and sustain and build onto it in the fourth quarter.

Murekatete dazzled on the national stage with her elegant moves in the post. The senior center posted 10 points, three rebounds, one assist and one block in just 19 minutes on the court.

In her final game as a Coug, Motuga scored 4 points and grabbed two rebounds. She leaves WSU having started more games than any other WSU women’s basketball player and as the winningest student-athlete in school history.

Grace Sarver, another senior playing her final game in crimson and gray, delivered 16 critical minutes for the Cougs. The West Seattle native provided 6 points, three rebounds and one assist.

In the third quarter, before the 3-point rainstorm, Sarver hit two crucial free throws to bring the Cougs within 3–the last time Wazzu would be in a one-score game for the remainder of the game and season.

The Cougs lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year and the fourth time in program history. Despite the mountain of program firsts head coach Kamie Ethridge and company accomplished in the 2022–23 season, an NCAA Tournament win is one thing that eludes them.

“I hope it’s a gut punch,” Ethridge said. “My sadness really falls on the fact that we just couldn’t do it for our seniors. Emma Nankervis, Grace Sarver and Ula [Motuga] those three, they are just as good as gold in character and loyalty and the standard that they carry.”