March 3, 2023
Charlisse Leger-Walker’s dagger three punctuates Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals
Plus, UCLA, Stanford and Colorado advance
LAS VEGAS — It’s March in Las Vegas, which means anyone can win and win big. Quarterfinal Thursday at the Pac-12 Tournament saw the top four seeds play for the first time, and they didn’t disappoint. We had two upsets, including the biggest one of the tournament so far as the Washington State Cougars downed national No. 3 Utah in spectacular fashion. It’s the biggest win in program history for WSU, and it guarantees that we will have a first-time participant in the championship game.
What more could you ask for from the conference where “every team could win an NCAA Tournament game,” according to Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck?
Game of the Day: Utah vs. Washington State. The first major upset of the tournament was everything you could ask for, with back-and-forth action, two big runs and a dagger 3-pointer.
Moment of the Day: The aforementioned 3-pointer by Washington State junior guard Charlisse Leger-Walker was the biggest shot of the tournament so far.
Quote of the Day: “I was ready to go play for [head coach Kamie Ethridge] at a smaller school and she’s like, ‘Come with me. I’ve been given a chance at Washington State.’ And before I even knew what WSU looked like, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m there.’ And then I got there and nothing but wheat fields. Small, you know, almost a country town,” said Washington State fifth-year forward Ula Motuga of her first impression of Pullman.
Tweet of the Day: Sometimes you prove all the pundits wrong.
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Quarterfinal 1: No. 5 UCLA defeats No. 4 Arizona 73-59
Summary: After Arizona took a five-point lead midway through the second quarter, UCLA took over and never looked back. The Bruins went on a 9-0 run to take the lead and outscored the Wildcats by 19 the rest of the way. They dominated on the glass, outrebounding Arizona by 19, and locked down defensively, holding Arizona to 32% shooting. Emily Bessoir had her first career double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Bruins.
Thoughts on Arizona: The Wildcats looked like they lacked energy and effort from the jump. They gave up a 6-0 run to start the game, and head coach Adia Barnes had to take a quick timeout. Fifth-year guard/forward Jade Loville looked like she would break out of her shooting slump with eight early points, but she couldn’t adjust to UCLA’s defense and finished with just 10 points. Arizona really struggled to rebound the ball, giving up 17 offensive rebounds. Its trademark pressure defense didn’t work as UCLA shot 42% from the field and it failed to force turnovers with its press. Wildcats star Cate Reese really struggled, scoring nine points without hitting a shot from the field.
The Wildcats did finish with three players in double figures, but they all only had 10 points. One player who did impress was freshman guard Kailyn Gilbert, who scored nine points, all in the fourth quarter. She came in and brought energy. Overall, it was a very underwhelming performance by the Wildcats, and they will need to regroup in order to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament.
“To start off the game, missed assignments, full court transition baskets, that is not nerves,” Barnes told reporters. “That is effort and a mentality and focus. So that was a tough way to start, to have to call a timeout right away. That’s not Arizona. So that tells me we’re not ready to play, which is okay because it’s a long game, so you can get things back defensively … I think the things that aren’t, you know, you can’t win games if this happens is to come out in the third quarter to a 7-0 run. That is lack of energy and focus.”
Thoughts on UCLA: The Bruins’ performance was impressive from start to finish. They started fast and had great energy from the tip. Senior guard Camryn Brown scored four of the first six points for UCLA and did all the little things right. She also had six rebounds, five offensive, and seemed to be all over the floor on the defensive end. The Bruins, who led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding during the regular season, dominated on the glass and scored 17 second-chance points. It seemed like every time the Bruins grabbed an offensive rebound, it led to a big score.
Star guard Charisma Osborne played one of her best games of the season. She had 18 points and was efficient with her scoring, something she has struggled with at times this season. She was being aggressive looking for her shot and running the Bruins’ offense to perfection. The story of the game for UCLA, however, was Bessoir. Bessoir has really impressed in this tournament. Against Arizona, she scored well at all three levels, grabbed some huge defensive rebounds, and had two key blocks, one against Reese. Bessoir is greatly improved from two years ago, and it has really showed for the Bruins in their first two games in the tournament.
“I think a lot of people coming back from an injury, when you get cleared to play your sport, that’s where actually it really starts because you’ve missed a whole year,” said Bessoir. “… Throughout the whole year, I’m still trying to find myself. I’m still trying to find my game. The team has been such a huge support and I think now I’m really glad that things are coming together.”
Quarterfinal 2: No. 1 Stanford defeats No. 9 Oregon 76-65
Summary: The Cardinal led wire to wire and cruised to a 76-65 win over Oregon. The Ducks got as close as six points late in the third quarter, but Stanford closed the quarter on a 7-0 run. Oregon never got closer than nine points in the fourth quarter, and the Cardinal advanced to the semifinals. Stanford star Cameron Brink led the way with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Thoughts on Stanford: The Cardinal did what they always do. It started as it always does with Stanford, on the defensive end, where Stanford held Oregon to 29% shooting from the field. Stanford is so good at finding your strength and eliminating it, and that’s what they did to Oregon senior guard Endyia Rogers. After Rogers put up 28 on Wednesday against Washington, the Cardinal held Rogers to just 15 points on 6-for-26 shooting.
The Cardinal also dominated the glass, grabbing 56 rebounds. Three players had double-digit rebounding efforts, and they scored 21 second-chance points on 21 offensive rebounds. They dominated the glass so well that at one point, Oregon guard Te-Hina Paopao turned to her teammates and yelled at them to box out.
Brink was strong in the post, finding ways around a physical Oregon defense. She had a phenomenal play on a baseline out-of-bounds where she faked a handoff with senior guard Hannah Jump and scored an easy layup. She did get in foul trouble again but was able to play through it and have a big impact on the game. Star wing Haley Jones almost had a triple-double with eight points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Senior forward Fran Belibi had a big game off the bench, scoring eight points and grabbing 10 boards. If she can continue to produce like that off the bench, that will be a big help to the Cardinal.
“I know teams want to be physical with me because I’m kind of slight in frame compared to others,” said Brink. “But I feel like I’ve played through that my whole life. I think [head coach] Tara [VanDerveer], when she was recruiting me, she’s like, ‘I’m wondering if she’s actually really strong.’ But it’s a mentality. Like, I’m not really that strong. I have to practice against Fran and [sophomore forward] Kiki [Iriafen] every day. They’re strong. But I think it’s just playing through it. So, yeah, my teammates did a really good job of finding me down low.”
Thoughts on Oregon: Despite going down as many as 16 points and never leading, the Ducks kept battling the whole game. They started getting some stops in the third quarter and were able to score in transition, which allowed them to go on a run and cut the deficit to six. Paopao had a phenomenal game, scoring 28 points while knocking down seven 3-pointers. She took advantage of Stanford’s focus on Rogers and was able to find some space behind the arc. She also really showed her leadership in the game, urging her teammates to rebound and trying to fire them up after hitting a 3-pointer right before the half.
Freshman forward Grace VanSlooten, in her second game back from an ankle injury, had some nice minutes, giving the Ducks seven points, three rebounds and three assists. She will greatly benefit from whatever postseason experience the Ducks get. The Ducks are on the NCAA Tournament bubble right now and will have to sweat it out over the next 10 days. They probably will make the tournament, but they will be hoping for a few upsets in other tournaments.
“I’ll use this moment to say that I hope we’re a team that’s included in that field,” said Oregon head coach Kelly Graves. “I think with a NET rating of 18 going into this tournament and playing Stanford relatively close isn’t going to change that. Plus, with a win [over Washington], hopefully we’ve done enough. I’ve never been one of those guys that watches and prays … If we make it, we make it. I think we’re good enough. This is by far the toughest conference in the country. We lap the second-best conference because teams, you go through this gauntlet … and you’re going to be ready.”
Quarterfinal 3: No. 7 Washington State defeats No. 2 Utah 66-58
Summary: The Cougars used a 27-point third quarter to pull off the biggest upset of the Pac-12 tournament so far. A 14-0 run over the final 3:06 of the third quarter put Washington State up 12, and it held off a late push from Utah to get the win. Leger-Walker scored 15 points, including the pivotal 3-pointer, for the Cougs. Senior center Bella Murekatete scored 19 and grabbed five rebounds for WSU.
Thoughts on Utah: The Utes looked completely out of sync from the tip. Their high-scoring offense never got in any rhythm. They scored a season-low 58 points and never got easy looks. Utah didn’t share the ball like it normally does, with just 10 assists on the night. Normally, the ball is popping and moving around for Utah, but it seemed to stick, which showed in its 15 turnovers.
The Utes were without starting point guard Isabel Palmer, which hurt them in running their offense with tempo. They also got a very off night from Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili. Pili scored just 11 points on 3-for-14 shooting and only grabbed two rebounds. Every time Pili tried to score, she was surrounded. The other starters for Utah struggled as well, shooting a combined 8-for-26. Gianna Kneepkens was the only starter to have a decent night with 18 points, and her threes helped keep Utah in the game early.
The Utes kept battling despite the struggles, but Washington State’s 14-0 run at the end of the third quarter put the Utes in too big a hole. The showed great fight in the fourth to cut the lead to three with 40 seconds left and played good defense on Leger-Walker’s 3-pointer, but it wasn’t enough.
“Our goals are still in front of us,” said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts. “Our athletic director, Mark Harlan, was just in the locker room and told the team that was just two hours of our season and it can’t define who we are. And I think that’s a great message of, it’s just two hours. These guys are competitors and they’re ticked off because we want to win. When you get knocked down, it’s more fuel to the fire. So it’s almost, I think, better. I have no doubt that we’ll be spitting nails by the time the ball gets thrown up for that first-round [NCAA Tournament] game.”
Thoughts on Washington State: The Cougars played fearlessly from the tip. They didn’t let the facts that they were the lower seed, were playing their second game in two days, and had already lost twice to Utah in the regular season get to them.
The star for the Cougars was Motuga, who was phenomenal guarding Pili. Pili is an incredibly physical player, and Motuga did a great job of matching and even at times exceeding Pili’s physicality. She is the main reason why Pili struggled and the Cougars’ secret weapon against Pili, according to Ethridge. Motuga also hit the two 3-pointers in the Cougars’ 14-0 run and grabbed eight rebounds as well.
Leger-Walker started the game slowly but hit three key shots in the second half for the Cougars. She hit two threes in the 14-0 run and then the three that ultimately sealed the game for Washington State. Bella Murekatete was a huge factor as well for the Cougs. She was dominating inside in the first half and helped keep Washington State in the game. The Utes had no answer for her inside, and she finished with 19 points.
Under Ethridge, the Cougs continue to do things they’ve never done. They tied a program record with 21 wins and got their first-ever win over a top-three team in the country.
“I came off the on ball and passed it to Ula and I knew kind of it was coming back, so I just knew I had to get it off fast and just shoot it, really. I’m just so glad it went in,” said Leger-Walker of the late dagger she hit. “I just think that everything leading up to that moment was just so good from our team. Obviously in those moments, it’s a big-time shot, but the plays we made before that, the runs that we had in that third quarter, and then taking that momentum into the fourth, that’s what really got us that win. So I’m glad I could finish it off for our team, but just super proud of how we came out tonight.”
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Quarterfinal 4: No. 3 Colorado defeats No. 11 Oregon State 62-54
Summary: After a tied first half, the Buffaloes dominated the third quarter 18-8 while using some heavy defensive pressure to secure their spot in the semifinals. The Buffs forced 17 Oregon State turnovers on the night and got 18 points from those turnovers. Junior guard Frida Formann led the way for Colorado with 16 points and sophomore center Aaronette Vonleh added 15.
Thoughts on Colorado: The Buffaloes are known for their defense, and it struggled in the first half, but they turned up their pressure in the third quarter and took over the game. They forced seven turnovers in the third quarter as their press really got to Oregon State, and the Buffs went on a 15-2 run that put them up 12.
Colorado also used its physicality to force a lot of Oregon State fouls. Colorado took 24 free throws as compared to Oregon State’s four. While the Buffs only shot 67% from the free-throw line, that disparity really made a difference.
Vonleh scored 15 points, but it was her defense on Raegan Beers that changed the game. She did a great job being physical with Beers and holding the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year without any points until the fourth quarter. The Buffs also made a smart move switching senior guard Jaylyn Sherrod onto Bendu Yeaney in the third quarter. She bothered the Beaver point guard and mucked up OSU’s offense, which was thriving in the first half. Sherrod grabbed two steals and seemed to be sprinting down the floor in transition, off either misses or makes. Her speed really hurt OSU.
“When [the Beavers] come out shooting like that, that’s a difficult sort of storm to weather, not something that we typically see or we allow,” Colorado head coach JR Payne said. “But to be able to weather the storm and be able to just really stay together … that’s very indicative of the selflessness of our team. To be able to have a great play and turn to someone and say, ‘That was you,’ that just, that gets me excited.”
Thoughts on Oregon State: Oregon State’s freshmen are really good. On Wednesday, Beers showed out. On Thursday, it was guard Adlee Blacklock and forward Timea Gardiner. Blacklock knocked down all three of her shots in the first half and played with a ton of confidence. Every time she scored, she got really amped and tried to pump her team up. Gardiner showed why she was a top-10 recruit with 10 points off the bench, knocking down three triples. Beers struggled on Thursday with Vonleh’s defense, but with these three leading the way, the Beavers have a bright future.
The biggest challenge for the Beavers was the turnovers. They kept coughing the ball up in the third quarter, and that spurred the Colorado run. That was really the one major run of the game, but it was too much for the Beavers to overcome. Yeaney led the team well with eight points and six assists. If this is the last game of her career, she has had a phenomenal career between the three schools she’s attended.
“We’ve just gotten better and better,” said Rueck. “The leadership has just gotten better and better, the freshmen better and better. So as we go, this group has a chance to be, in my opinion, very special. … With the people that are joining us next year, with the people that we have, it has similar vibes to previous years at Oregon State. It’s just forming. It’s forming. So we’re in the early stages of it. Sometimes losing leads to lots of winning. I think that’s what everybody’s expecting.”
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.