March 6, 2023 

Cougars strike gold in Sin City, win first Pac-12 championship

The Cougars did what no one thought was possible, win a Pac-12 championship — as a seven seed, no less

LAS VEGAS- The old saying is, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” However, the Washington State Cougars brought some magic from Pullman with them to Sin City and won their first-ever Pac-12 Championship, defeating UCLA 65-61 on Sunday afternoon. The championship marks the first-ever women’s sports Pac-12 championship by Washington State in athletics history and they joined the conference in 1917. Here’s how the Cougs won their first-ever Pac-12 title.

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Game Summary: Through the first three quarters, neither team ever led by more than seven points. They traded baskets early in the fourth until Washington State went on a 6-0 run to take an eight-point lead. The Bruins were able to cut it to two multiple times late, but Washington knocked down their free throws and had a couple of key stops to seal the win. Washington State’s Charlisse Leger-Walker scored 23 points and was named the Pac-12 tournament‘s Most Outstanding Player. The All-Tournament team consisted of UCLA’s Emily Bessoir, Charisma Osborne and Kiki Rice, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, and Washington State’s Bella Murekatete.

Charisma Osborne takes a jump shot in the Pac-12 championship game against UCLA. Photo Credit: Powers Imagery

UCLA thoughts: The Bruins’ offense struggled all day to get consistent, easy looks at the basket. Washington State came into the game as the best defense at the Pac-12 tournament and the Bruins felt that all game long. They couldn’t execute very well in their half-court offense and their easy looks at the rim from any spot on the floor were few and far between. UCLA’s forward Emily Bessoir, who had an excellent Pac-12 tournament coming into the championship game, got off to a hot start, scoring eight in the first quarter. However, she scored only three points for the rest of the game. Charisma Osborne led the Bruins with 19 points but shot a very inefficient six of 16 from the field. She did a great job keeping UCLA in the game and made some big shots to close the gap in the fourth but couldn’t hit the three to tie the game with nine seconds left.

UCLA’s Kiki Rice was coming off a great game in the semifinals but got off to a slow start, scoring just two points in the first quarter. However, she found some rhythm in the second half scoring 11 points and knocking down a three to give UCLA a four-point lead in the third quarter. However, she had a layup spin out with 15 seconds left that would have put UCLA down one. The Bruins did a great job early of offensive rebounding early, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, which led to seven second-chance points. However, they couldn’t keep up that presence on the boards in the second half, only grabbing four and not scoring any second-chance points.

They also did a great job of not turning the ball over, with only eight turnovers in the game, but those extra possessions didn’t lead to any more offensive success. The Bruins will need to work on their half-court offense before the NCAA tournament if they want to make a deep run.

Bella Murekatete shoots a layup in Washington State’s Pac-12 championship game victory. Photo Credit: Powers Imagery

“Every March the amount of transition buckets go down, teams are really good, and they take that away,” Cori Close said. “You have to be able to execute better in the half-court, and my hope is that, and I really believe in this team, that we will have a new level of focus on our half-court execution and what we’re trying to create and we just, we have to cut down errors. If we have enough mental errors or possession errors, it’s really tough to recover from that, and we had too many today to come out with a victory…Ultimately, that’s my job in the next whatever, 11, 12 days is to get us ready to be better when we go into the NCAA tournament.”

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Washington State thoughts: What an incredible run for the Cougars at the Pac-12 tournament. In Sunday’s game, they never trailed by more than seven and after they fell down by that amount in the second quarter, they went on an 8-0 run to take the lead. Leger-Walker continued to make her case as one of the best players in the country. Sunday, she hit some big shots and made five threes, an area that wasn’t her strength coming into the Pac-12 tournament. Although in the tournament, she was shooting 40% from behind the arc and with the shooting she had on Sunday, she shot 50% from behind the arc for the whole tournament.

She again hit one of her trademark midrange jump shots and had a huge one late in the game that helped seal the win for Washington State. Murekatete was also huge for the Cougs, scoring 21 on eight of 11 shooting and drew four fouls, leading to seven free throw attempts. She also had excellent defense on UCLA’s post, including shutting down Bessoir in the second half. Her ability to roll to the basket so well made her pick-and-roll with Leger-Walker so difficult to guard and the Bruins struggled with it the entire game. Her growth as a player over her career has been incredible to watch.

One of their unsung players was freshman point guard Astera Tuhina. She played excellent defense on Rice and scored six points for the Cougars off the bench. She was the leader of all players in plus-minus at plus 12. Her development as a freshman has been great for Washington State and her ability to allow Leger-Walker to move off the ball has opened things up for the Cougs. The defense for Washington State the whole tournament was incredible. They held teams to 54.3 points per game which was seven points lower than what they did in the regular season. Their defense was probably the biggest key to their run in this tournament and now they get to celebrate as Pac-12 champions for the first time in program history.

“I don’t really know what to say, but it sounds sweet, that title for us,” said Kamie Ethridge. “I would have never thought we could do it. I don’t even think when I took the job I thought this was possible in this kind of league and these kind of coaches and the athletes that we’re going up against and players. Couldn’t be more proud. Three special people up here. Also want to just, the other two seniors, Grace Sarver and Emma Nankervis, what those guys have done for our program over the years is pretty short of a miracle. So really proud of the upperclassmen on this team.”

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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