WSU faces UC Davis in Sweet 16 of WNIT

The WSU women’s basketball team’s surprising postseason run makes its way to Pullman tonight for a Sweet 16 matchup against UC Davis in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT).

Despite finishing the regular season seven games under .500, the Cougars (14-19) earned the Pac-12’s automatic berth in the WNIT and rattled off two victories in three days over higher-seeded opponents in BYU and Wyoming last week. As a reward for notching the first two postseason wins in program history, WSU will host the Aggies (25-7) with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight on Saturday.

The Cougars knocked off BYU 72-64 on March 16 behind a furious second-half rally to wipe away an 81.8 percent shooting clip from BYU in the first half. Two days later, WSU headed to Laramie to take on Wyoming and held off the Cowgirls in overtime to snag a 68-67 win.

Playing shorthanded for the majority of the season, WSU Head Coach June Daugherty said the team has rallied behind its lone senior forward, Ivana Kmetovska, and is trying to keep the focus on the present moment.

“We keep hearing ‘Well, this will be a good team next year,’ but the girls in the locker room, they want to win [now],” Daugherty said.

Daugherty also said the team is excited to have the opportunity to play a game with the highest postseason stakes the program has seen in front of a home crowd.

“They’re confident and leaving everything out there,” Daugherty said. “We love playing hard for our fans and we can’t wait to see a potentially historic crowd for women’s basketball in Beasley [on] Thursday.”

Players were given five days off after Saturday’s win, the most time they have had in between games since the regular season.

“This is the most preparation we’ve had with these quick turnarounds in postseason play,” Daugherty said. “We’re so glad that we have had the time to go through the film and get the floor time this week.”

Junior guard Pinelopi Pavlopoulou, who netted a career-high 20 points against Wyoming and hit a clutch jumper with 25 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime and keep the Cougars’ season alive, is a player who Daugherty said has bought into the preparation process for these postseason games. Pavlopoulou has been the first player to arrive at practices and the last to leave since the end of the regular season.

“Every scouting report she has read and re-read,” Daugherty said. “She doesn’t cut corners and she doesn’t hold back.”

Since taking over starting duties at the point guard position midway through January, Pavlopoulou has increased her scoring averages and has taken her new role on the team in stride.

“It was a really great atmosphere, a lot of people supported,” Pavlopoulou said of her performance against Wyoming. “The last shot came natural to me, I was just taking what the defense was giving me.”

UC Davis has also been a road warrior in this tournament, thrashing a Pac-12 opponent (Utah) by double digits in the first round and squeaking out a 58-57 win at top-seeded Colorado State on Saturday.

The Aggies posted a 14-2 record in the Big West conference to finish second in the regular season standings before losing to UC Santa Barbara in the semifinals of its conference tournament. Despite missing out on the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies’ second place finish in the conference standings earned them the Big West’s automatic berth in the WNIT.

“UC Davis is a great team with very good guards and very versatile post-players,” Pavlopoulou said. “Our offense isn’t always going to go, we got to keep up the good defense.”

One of the frontcourt players Pavlopoulou alluded to is redshirt sophomore forward Morgan Bertsch, who averages just over 16 points per game. Bertsch has displayed consistency throughout the season, playing in all 32 of the Aggies’ games and shooting more than 50 percent from both the field and 3-point range. She’s also a defensive force, totaling 32 steals and 55 blocks on the season.

“Hopefully we can disrupt her and extend those passing lanes,” Daugherty said. “She does a great job of running the floor, so we’ve got to get back and quick.”

WSU sophomore guard Alexys Swedlund said the Cougars have what it takes to advance to the finals on April 1 and win the title after upsetting two teams with better records on the road in the first two rounds of the tournament.

“I do think we can win it all, we’re a strong-headed team,” Swedlund said. “We got to take it game-by-game, because each team deserves to be here.”

With a win, the Cougars advance to play the winner of tonight’s game between Iowa and Colorado in Iowa City.

Tipoff for WSU’s Sweet 16 showdown with UC Davis is set for 7 p.m. in Beasley Coliseum.