January 8, 2023 

Washington State has a mountain to climb in the Pac-12

Washington State is playing without junior guard Charlisse Leger-Walker and is trying to win without her

When you are a team like Washington State, an upstart still trying to hold yourself up, maintaining your momentum as a program is hard work. You can land on the right combination that makes you a pleasant surprise and catapults your program into a new space — in this case, the NCAA Tournament. You can keep that combination together for another year, like the Cougars managed to do a season ago and turn that surprise into expectation. Winning a program-best 19 games, finishing second in the Pac-12 regular season and reaching the NCAA Tournament for a second year in a row.

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But things start to change sooner or later, while the expectations don’t. The Cougars (10-4) are 0-3 to start the Pac-12 schedule, with plenty of time still to find their footing. But Sunday’s home game against rival Washington — who already beat them in the conference opener last month — feels pretty must-win-ish.

Washington State played two games last weekend without junior guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, the conference’s leading scorer, who went home to New Zealand to deal with a family matter. Without Leger-Walker, they dropped games to Utah and Colorado, their first back-to-back season losses. Cougars head coach Kamie Ethridge has been tight-lipped about whether Leger-Walker will be back in Pullman in time for the Sunday game.

Photo Credit: WSU Photo Services

“I can’t really say yet,” Ethridge said when asked about Leger-Walker’s return on her weekly press call. “We are in a waiting pattern a little bit right now. The best thing I can say is that when we get Charlisse back, I know we are going to be a better team.“Right now we are trying to improve ourselves before she gets back and hope that we have players stepping up and take some of the load off and that over the course of the season, nothing having her for this period of time is going to spur us into becoming the team that I think we can become.”

Last season, Leger-Walker had her older sister Krystal as her complement on the offensive end. And she had international veterans Johanna Teder and Bella Murekatete, who built on the NCAA experience of the 2020-21 season to emerge as a core group good enough to put the Cougars in a position to finish ahead of the likes of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State.

Photo Credit: WSU Photo Services

Teder, who hit (56) 3-pointers last season and averaged 10.5 points a game, has been dealing with a foot injury that dates back to the summer and the training staff trying to manage her pain. Her scoring average has dropped to 8.5 per game and she’s scored just 15 points in the last three games, her minutes diminishing.

“I hate this for her because when you are in pain, it’s hard to be a good player,” Ethridge said, adding that the training staff has taken a new approach to her injury this week, which she hopes will provide Teder more relief. “I think maybe she is going to have a little bit of relief and you know, with more relief comes more practice time and more opportunity to get in the gym and do what she does best, which is shoot the ball. “We are all hopeful and we all want her to feel better. We all know that we need her to be a player that we can depend on. I still have confidence that we can make that happen this year.”

Ethridge credited Canadian sophomore Tara Wallack and freshman Astera Tuhina from Kosovo for picking up some of the slack for both Leger-Walker and Teder. But Leger-Walker’s return could be the cure that ails. She put up 40 points in the loss to Washington on Dec. 11. But the winning needs to start soon, lest the Cougars see their hard-won momentum begin to slide. Washington State ranks in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in offensive and defensive rebounding, turnovers and field-goal percentage defense, ranking last in total rebounds.

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“We have got a big mountain to climb,” Ethridge said. “We have a lot of things to work on and have been. It’s not just (Washington); it’s more of who are we going to be and what are we going to be when we walk into this game.”

Ethridge joked that the best way to break a two-game losing streak is to get out of the Pac-12. Each of the following four Pac-12 weekends includes a matchup against a ranked opponent. Utah was the Cougars’ only ranked opponent of the season last week. But WSU has a net ranking of 48, putting the Cougars in position for a third-straight NCAA berth if they can begin to string wins together.

“We have higher expectations of our team in certain areas where we’re on the low end of the league,” Ethridge said. “Sometimes it has to do with competitiveness and playing hard and I don’t know that we played as hard as Colorado in our last game. And that was a real disappointment.

“We’ve got to be willing to take on the battles that you are looking for in this league on the floor every night and we haven’t quite done that.”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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