WSU finished their incredible run at the Pac-12 tournament with a victory crown.
“I would have never thought we could do it. I don’t even think when I took the job, I thought this was possible,” Washington State head coach Kamie Ethridge said. “If you get the right people in place that believe and work and are committed to each other, you can accomplish amazing things together.”
No. 7 seed Washington State pulled off its third upset in a row by defeating Utah, Colorado and then winning 65-61 against No. 5 seed UCLA Sunday at Michelob ULTRA Arena. It marked WSU’s first-ever women’s basketball Pac-12 title and the school’s first in a women’s sport.
UCLA redshirt sophomore center Emily Bessoir scored the game’s first two points on a jumper. WSU sophomore guard Tara Wallack responded by burying a three. And the game was on.
As against Colorado, WSU’s defense was stellar when its offense consecutively buried back-to-back threes in both the first and second quarters. But the Cougars struggled to take the lead, suffering from seven turnovers in the first half.
UCLA’s poor shooting, only 33% from the field, kept the Bruins low on scoring. Junior guard Charlisse Leger-Walker buried a three with 35 seconds on the clock, giving WSU a four-point lead just before halftime, 32-28.
Returning from the locker room, UCLA was determined not to let its win slip away, taking the lead back 36-32. The Cougars went scoreless for more than four minutes until Leger-Walker relieved the team with a driving layup. Washington State took its lead back thanks to Leger-Walker and senior center Bella Murekatete wrapping the third quarter 44-42.
Both teams traded leads 13 times, and with a two-point lead, any team still had a winning chance. Freshman guard Astera Tuhina, coming off the bench, displayed incredible defense and locked down UCLA freshman guard Kiki Rice.
Early in the fourth quarter, Murekatete made a layup. The Cougars had the lead and never let it go. Later, Leger-Walker extended the lead to eight. It was then a game of free throws. The crowd fell silent during the plays and was incredibly loud on the opponent’s free throws. This was a game for a Pac-12 title, and everyone could feel it.
“Every timeout or every time we came back on to the court, there was something being side, like, we’ve got this, we just need to focus on this play right here,” Leger-Walker said. “All the little things that we say to each other to keep us in the moment, I think, really helps.”
With 38.4 seconds on the clock, Murekatete made two free throws, taking WSU’s lead up to 63-59.
With 23.3 seconds to go, Kiki Rice scored two, pushing UCLA closer to retaking the lead at 63-61. With 21.7 on the clock, Leger-Walker made one of her two free throws, WSU still leading 64-61. It was a mental game for each shooter. Teams traded timeouts, transforming 30 seconds into an almost ten-minute session.
The score was 64-61 with 14 seconds to go. UCLA had to go for a 3-pointer to send both teams to overtime. Senior guard Charisma Osborne tried the shot but was blocked by Tuhina. Leger-Walker forced a held ball, giving possession back to the Cougars with five seconds on the clock.
A last foul on Wallack gave her the opportunity to make the game-sealing free throw. She only made one of the two, but it was enough to crown WSU with its first-ever Pac-12 title.
“I just had to really trust the work ... and we did it,” Murekatete said.
Leger-Walker finished with 23 points, and Murekatete had 21. Tuhina had only six points but was highly active defensively and delivered six assists. Wallack finished with eight rebounds, including important ones on the defensive side.
For the Bruins, Osborne had 19 points, Rice with 13 and Bessoir had 11.
Both teams were honored in the All-Tournament team with Charlisse Leger-Walker (WSU), Emily Bessoir (UCLA), Cameron Brink (Stanford), Bella Murekatete (WSU), Charisma Osborne (UCLA) and Kiki Rice (UCLA) being placed on the list.
Leger-Walker was granted the most outstanding player of the tournament and set the tournament points record with 76.
“She’s just an amazing student-athlete,” Ethridge said. “She’s a leader on and off the court.”
With the Pac-12 win, Washington State picked up its ticket for the NCAA tournament, where the Cougars have even higher hopes. After all, they proved that anything was possible.
Until then, it’s time for the Cougars to celebrate.
“Never would have thought we would be doing that [cutting the net]. We’ve watched teams do that in the past or especially the last three years,” Leger-Walker said. “That moment just felt so surreal to get up there, cut down the net, actually soak in that we’re champs.”