Pac-12 Feature: Cougs on a roll despite uncertainty

As the Pac-12 teams came out of the non-conference seasons, the vast majority of them sporting gaudy win-loss margins, and there sat Washington State.

The Cougars were the only team without a winning record. But with one of the nation’s most difficult schedules and a lot of young players seeing the first significant playing time of their collegiate careers, WSU coach June Daugherty knew something good wasn’t far off. Even as she stared at a six-game losing streak.

“I kept telling them, this is going to get you ready,” Daugherty said. “It took so long for us to get out of that stretch, but I’m really proud of our kids.”

The Cougars have reeled off three straight now to put up a 3-1 record through the first two weeks of the Pac-12 season. And they just pulled off one of the most successful weekends in program history.

Washington State’s upset win over seventh-ranked UCLA on Friday night was a history-making victory for the Cougars. It was the program’s best win over a top-10 opponent in program history, topping the 70-64 win over No. 8 Maryland in 2014.

WSU followed up with a dominating win over USC. It was the first time the Cougars had swept the Los Angeles schools since doing so at the beginning of Pac-12 play in the 1994-95 season.

Freshman Chanelle Molina had an outstanding weekend, scoring 49 points in two games and winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week and USBWA National Freshman of the Week honors for the second week in a row.

“She’s playing lights out right now,” Daugherty said of the 5-foot-9 guard from Hawai’i. “She’s really poised and she’s out there smiling all the time, and I think that gives our kids’ confidence.”

If the Cougars are experiencing the “up” side of a long season right now, they’ve already experienced some serious “down”.

Two of WSU’s best players – sophomore guard Borislava Hristova and junior forward Louise Brown are out with injuries and their return this season is in serious question. The pair accounted for more than 25 points a game combined before they went out during the non-conference. The Cougars are relying primarily on freshmen and sophomores. Sophomore guard Alexys Swedlund came up with a career-high 22 points against USC.

“I don’t know if we will get them back, so we’ve had to play very young,” Daugherty said. “Maybe that’s the silver lining. These young kids are getting valuable time and this is big-time basketball in the Pac-12.”

Four of WSU’s next five games come against ranked conference opponents, including Arizona State in Tempe on Friday night.

Beavers take the lead
Oregon State can certainly relate.

The Beavers are in what coach Scott Rueck calls “the toughest stretch in Oregon State basketball history.” Beginning on January 1 with a win over Washington, followed by a win at Cal, and then the program’s first-ever win at Maples Pavilion against the Cardinal, and continuing next Friday at UCLA, Oregon State will have faced four straight ranked teams – three of which have been ranked in the Top 10 already this season.

“I love it,” Rueck said. “This is really fun.”

All the Beavers have to show for their good time is sole possession of first place in the powerhouse Pac-12.

The Beavers are, not surprisingly, doing it with defense, allowing opponents an average of 54.6 points a game.

“It’s been the staple of what we do here,” Rueck said. “Our stinginess and our willingness to prepare. It’s something we’ve embraced and we understand how important it is to our success as we’ve been figuring out our offense through all the new.”

With the graduations of Jamie Weisner and Ruth Hamblin, the Beavers had to find new ways to score. Point guard Sydney Wiese has been key to that effort in her stellar senior season.

Wiese, the Pac-12’s new all-time career 3-point shooting leader, is averaging 16.3 points a game, has hit 44 3-pointers and is playing the best basketball of her career.

“She’s been really special,” Rueck said.

And she has been getting increasing support from Oregon State’s young talent such as Mikayla Pivec and Kat Tudor.

“Offensively, is where I see the most growth in our team,” Rueck said. “Early on, I did not like us at all. We were lethargic. We didn’t run well. But I think that’s changing. We are growing and we have a lot of room to continue to do that.”

Plum Opportunity
Washington guard Kelsey Plum is making a legitimate run at the NCAA all-time scoring record held by Jackie Stiles of Southwest Missouri State (1999-2001), a record that many thought would not be broken.

Plum, the nation’s leading scorer at 30.7 points a game, boosted that average this weekend with a combined 73 points in wins over USC and UCLA.

Plum, who took over the Pac-12 scoring title earlier this season, now has 2,971 points, putting her in range of Stiles’ record of 3,393 points.

With 13 games remaining in conference play, and assuming a few more postseason opportunities – say for the sake of argument another 16 games – Plum would need to average 26.3 points a game to tie the historic mark.

She is also just 29 points away from reaching 3,000, a milestone only 11 players in NCAA history have reached.

Milestone check
Cal’s Kristine Anigwe scored the 1,000th point of her young career Sunday against Oregon. Anigwe is the only underclassmen in the nation to already have 1,000 career points and she needed just 47 games to get there, making her the fastest to 1,000 points in Pac-12 history. Anigwe is averaging 23.3 points a game, second in the conference behind Plum.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.

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