March 3, 2021
How Charlisse Leger-Walker has lifted Washington State into the NCAA Tournament conversation
From unknown to Pac-12 Freshman of the Year
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Last. That’s where both the Pac-12 coaches and media thought Washington State would end the regular season. What they did not account for was a freshman from New Zealand taking the conference by storm.
Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Charlisse Leger-Walker is the kind of player who can do that.
“Her knowledge of the game, her understanding of the game,” Washington State head coach Kamie Ethridge said. “She has the athleticism to play at a really high level. She’s no longer a surprise to the league, and, yet, it’s really hard for people to shut her down.”
Publicly-available U.S. recruiting services do not reliably rank players from overseas. Only coaches who do a lot of overseas recruiting see them play. When a great player from around the world lands in NCAA basketball, she can quickly become a revelation.
With Leger-Walker it is more than that. Even opposing coaches who saw her play overseas did not expect her to have this kind of impact this soon.
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes and her staff are known for scouring the international circuit. Barnes had seen Leger-Walker play when she was recruiting Arizona sophomore Tara Manumaleuga, who played alongside the Cougar freshman in the New Zealand national program.
Barnes was interested in recruiting her at the time but still did not foresee what Leger-Walker would do in the Pac-12 in her first season.
Ethridge thinks she knows why so many people did not see it coming.
“I think there were people in power conferences that were… you know, her body is deceiving,” Ethridge said. “It doesn’t look like a stellar athlete. Maybe it doesn’t. You wonder and question if she’s quick enough. You wonder and question if she’s a good enough athlete. And I’m just telling you that, yes. And yes.”
The first suggestion that this was not the Washington State team of old came when they took a seventh-ranked Oregon team to the wire, losing by four late in the game on Dec. 21, 2020. Leger-Walker led the way for her team with 20 points, going 4-for-10 from the 3-point line.
It became even more clear on Jan. 10, 2021, when the Cougars took seventh-ranked Arizona to overtime. This time, they closed the deal.
After a slow start, Leger-Walker was at the center of it down the stretch, getting both the bucket that sent it to extra time and the winning basket in the 71-69 victory. The next day, her team was ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history.
It was not the end of things, either. After losing to UCLA by two in overtime on Jan. 17, Washington State was ready to prove that they could rebound from the loss.
On Feb. 5, they did just that. The Cougars put the seal on the program’s first win over a Top 5 team when they defeated the fifth-ranked Bruins in Pullman. Leger-Walker had 28 points in the four-point victory.
As to how they are doing it, much of it has been due to improved defense and the ability to spread the floor. That comes from just being smarter and more committed, Ethridge and Barnes agree.
“High basketball IQ” was the phrase both coaches applied to Leger-Walker and her older sister Krystal, who has taken over the point guard duties for Washington State this year.
The Pac-12 Tournament is the next big opportunity for the sister duo and their teammates. As of now, most bracketologists have them hovering around the bubble for their first tournament berth in 30 years. It would be just the second berth in program history.
A strong run in the conference tournament would make it easier for the Cougars to breathe. The first step comes against Utah in the opening round.
Washington State swept the season series this year. The Utes made a game of it in the first meeting, coming back from a 12-point deficit to lose 79-74.
It was a more comfortable game in Pullman. The Cougars needed a win at the time. They were on a four-game losing streak. Ethridge felt they had “hit a wall.” They finally recovered against the Utes.
Just a week-and-a-half later, the two teams face off again. If the Cougars can maintain that momentum, it will be a strong statement on their NCAA Tournament resume.
It will also set up a rubber match between Washington State and Arizona. The team with the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year facing off against the team with the Pac-12 Player of the Year and co-Defensive Player of the Year. The two players who ended the season scoring 19.4 points per game, tops in the league.
Can the Cougars seize their opportunity and set up that match-up between Leger-Walker and Aari McDonald? The Utes are the only thing standing in the way.