Rivalry week: Cougars take on the Huskies in Seattle

When the WSU women’s basketball team (12-6, 3-4) faces its rival the Washington Huskies (14-4, 5-2) Saturday afternoon at Alaska Airlines Arena, reversing a 79-64 home defeat on December 29 will not be the only result the team is looking to offset from the first meeting.

There is also a matter of containing Huskies junior Kelsey Plum, who leads the nation in scoring at 27.3 points per game, and lit up the Cougs for 33 in Beasley Coliseum last time out.

“She is a tremendous talent and she has been for her entire career at Washington and it seems like she keeps getting better and better,” WSU Head Coach June Daugherty said. “I don’t know as far as who is going to cover her. I think the game plan will be a lot of different looks from us just because she’s probably going to play 40 minutes and the ball is going to be in her hands an awful lot. But hopefully we can do a better job limiting her.”

In the two teams’ first matchup, UW capitalized on 21 Cougar turnovers, transforming the takeaways into fast break opportunities that prevented the WSU defense from setting up its formations. It allowed for a lethally balanced Huskies offense that racked up 42 points in the paint but also hit 12 three pointers in addition.

“You’ve got to be spot on because of their ability to score not just from the three point line but deep from the three point line, from NBA range with a couple of their players,” Daugherty said of what WSU must do on its defensive rotations. “They can really stretch the defense and we’ve just got to get down and play really hard, and when we do that, great things happen defensively.”

Reducing the scoring output from Plum and lowering the turnover-per-quarter ratio will allow for the team to continue its defensive and rebounding improvements, as Daugherty noted on Wednesday, though the team is riding a nice confidence boost from its performances against raked opponents at home last weekend.

A 42-23 second half, fueled by a 23-6 run to open the third quarter and erase a seven-point halftime deficit, slingshot WSU to a 73-61 win over then No. 25 USC last Friday and the team rallied from being 11 points down in the fourth quarter against then No. 17 UCLA to get off a potential game-tying shot before dropping a nail biter 75-73. After getting thumped at home 63-45 by then No. 14 and conference-leading Arizona State the previous week, players realized that when consistent pace and energy is infused into its efforts at both ends, the team is talented enough to compete with anyone in the Pac-12, the conference with the highest collective RPI in division one women’s basketball.

“I think a big thing for us is starting the game with energy, starting both halves with energy,” senior guard Taylor Edmondson said. “I think that if we do that, then it carries over. We need to keep our bench motivated as much as they need (in order) to stay motivated as well. We’re going to need all 14 players on Saturday just like we have in every game this season. As long as all 14 of us are ready, then I think we’ll have a good outcome.”

The Huskies enters Saturday’s showdown in sole possession of third place in the Pac-12 and are riding a three-game win streak, the latter two wins being over both of the Southern California schools. In the latest AP top-25 poll for women’s basketball, UW received votes from the pollsters after notching two wins over ranked opponents.

“UW is doing a great job right now,” sophomore guard Caila Hailey said. “I think they’re like third in the Pac right now. So this win would be very good, just for our team and just against a team like that. It will be good for us in the Pac.”

The Cougs currently sit in seventh place in the Pac-12, two games behind No. 11 Stanford, No. 20 UCLA and Utah for fourth. This week’s edition of ESPN Bracketology had WSU listed in the “first four out” category as the first bubble team that would be left out of the Big Dance if the season ended today. The team is gaining some national traction, but needs a counterbalancing win over its respected rival if it is to keep pace in the race for the NCAA tournament.