2020-21 Women's Basketball Season Recap
PULLMAN, Wash. -- The 2020-21 Washington State women's basketball season will be one that folks on the Palouse will talk about for generations. And no, it won't be because of the unusually circumstances that came from the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be remembered as arguably the greatest season in program history to-date, as the Cougars earned their first top-25 ranking in program history and made a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three decades.
Washington State was a bit of an unknown commodity heading into year three under head coach Kamie Ethridge, as the Cougars lost the program's all-time leading scorer Borislava Hristova and All-Pac-12 guard Chanelle Molina due to graduation. With the Cougars returning only roughly 30 percent of its offense from a year ago, it came as no a surprise to see WSU at the bottom of the Pac-12 preseason poll. Coach Ethridge was unfazed by the preseason prognostics because she knew her returners had drastically improved in the offseason and she had a dynamic sister-duo from New Zealand waiting to take the conference by storm.
The 2020-21 season got off to a rocky start, as Washington State was unable to play any games until 17 days after the official start date of the 2020-21 NCAA women's basketball season due to COVID-19 protocols with opponents. Because of that, WSU had to open the season at archrival Washington on Dec. 11, marking the first time in program history WSU started a season with a Pac-12 Conference game. The improvements made in the offseason by the Cougs were immediately on display in the season-opener. Washington State lead by the Huskies by as many as 23 points, before claiming their third-straight win over Washington in Seattle. The women's college basketball world was introduced to freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker in the season-opening win, as the guard from Waikato, New Zealand scored 20 points, pulled down seven rebounds and collected four steals in her NCAA debut game.
Leger-Walker's performance in Seattle kick-started arguably the most impressive freshman season in program history. The youngest player to ever suit up for the New Zealand Senior National team, Leger-Walker made quite the impact in her first season in the United States. She ended the regular season as the first freshman in Pac-12 women's basketball history to lead the league in total points, scoring 434 in 23 games of action during the regular season. Leger-Walker set the WSU freshman scoring record by averaging 18.8 points per game. Leger-Walker had 12 games with 20-or-more points and racked up a program-best seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors during her first season on the Palouse. The guard's dominance earned her the 2020-21 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Award, making her just the second WSU player to ever win the honor. Leger-Walker also became the first player in WSU history to be named to both the All-Pac-12 and All-Pac-12 freshman teams in the same season, becoming only the 22nd player in Pac-12 history to accomplish the feat.
Washington State had won back-to-back games to start the season, but it was still looking to make a statement entering weekend at home against No. 21 Oregon State and No. 7/8 Oregon. That statement was made on Dec. 19 in Beasley Coliseum, as the Cougars got a 20-point performance from sophomore Johanna Teder to lead WSU to a 61-55 upset-win over the No. 21-ranked Beavers, giving the program its first win over a top-25 team since the 2016-17 season. WSU nearly sent shock waves throughout the NCAA women's basketball landscape on Dec. 21 by almost knocking off Oregon, the defending Pac-12 champions. WSU got off a potential game-winning three-pointer from the corner, but the shot went just a bit long and the No. 7/8 Ducks escaped Pullman with a 69-65 win.
After the Oregon game, WSU rolled off three-straight victories, which include a road sweep at Utah and Colorado over the New Year's weekend. Washington State's success up in the mountains allowed the Cougars to receive votes in the Associated Press poll for the first time in four seasons.
WSU found itself with another opportunity to take down a top-10 foe after their trip to the mountain schools, as No. 7/10 Arizona rolled into Pullman on Jan. 10. Washington State let the women's college basketball world know that this was a new breed of Cougars in that matchup, as the Cougs knocked off the eventual NCAA national-runner-ups, 71-69, in overtime. Charlisse Leger-Walker sent the game into overtime with a reverse layup at the end of regulation, then hit the game-winner in the extra stanza to collect the program's first win over a top-10 team since 2016-17.
The win over Arizona propelled the Cougars to their first-ever top-25 ranking in the Associated Press poll, coming in at No. 25 in the Jan. 11 poll.
WSU's stay in the Associated Press top-25 would be a short one, as the Cougars dropped back-to-back overtime contests to USC and UCLA in Los Angeles the following weekend. The Cougars nearly knocked off then No. 8-ranked Bruins in Pauley Pavilion, as redshirt senior Krystal Leger-Walker sent the Cougs into overtime at UCLA for the first time in program history with made a tip-in basket off an intentionally-missed free throw from her younger sister Charlisse. The play made No. 9 on ESPN's SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays of the Day for Jan. 17.
Washington State had just played in three-straight overtimes games, making them the first team in Pac-12 women's basketball history to ever accomplish the feat, when they headed into No. 13 Oregon on Jan. 22. After suffering a loss in a tightly-contested battle against the the Ducks, the Cougars would get back into the win column with a double-overtime win at Oregon State to complete the first regular season sweep of the Beavers since the 2012-13 season.
The Cougs faced one of their toughest challenges of the season after the win in Corvallis, as they hosted the eventual NCAA champions, Stanford in back-to-back games at Beasley on Jan. 27 and Jan. 29. Washington State dropped both contests, but the battle against the Cardinal helped set up the Cougars for arguably their greatest victory to-date.
WSU proved it was no one-hit wonder on Feb. 5, as the Cougs knocked off No. 5/4 UCLA, 67-63 in Beasley Coliseum. Charlisse Leger-Walker scored 28 points in the victory and added more to her lore, as she hit the game-winning shot once again to give Washington State its first win over a top-five opponent in program history.
From that point, WSU had to overcome the loss of a key player and had to shuffle through new player rotations in early February, which led to four consecutive losses.
As they had all season, the Cougars would once again overcome adversity and regroup to win their final two games of the regular season against Utah and Washington, finishing the regular season at 11-10 overall. It marked the first time since the 2014-15 campaign that WSU had ended a regular season with a winning record. Washington State collected nine Pac-12 wins during the season, which is tied for the second-most league wins in a single season in program history.
The nine league wins helped Cougars earned a No. 7-seed in the 2021 Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas. Washington State defeated No. 10 Utah, 58-44, in the tournament's first round to give the program its first win at the Pac-12 Tournament under coach Ethridge. WSU's run in the Pac-12 Tournament came to an end in the quarterfinals with a loss to No. 2-seeded Arizona, but the Cougs left Vegas feeling like they've done enough to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Washington State had reason to feel good going into Selection Monday. The Cougars had a NET ranking of 45, while they collected a pair of wins over top-15 opponents. The 30-year-wait to return to the NCAA Tournament came to an end for Washington State on March 15, as the Cougs were selected as the No. 9-seeded team in the Mercado Region.
Years of frustration were over, the team's dedication and sacrifice through an unprecedented season had paid off. The journey didn't end with the NCAA Tournament selection, as the Cougars headed back to Coach Ethridge's old stomping grounds at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas on March 21, to take on No. 8-seed South Florida. Washington State went toe-to-toe with the Bulls in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and held a 53-52 lead with 1:47 remaining in the game after a 3-point field goal from Charlisse Leger-Walker. The Cougs' magical season would come to an end shortly after, as South Florida came away with the 57-53 victory. Though the year was over, it had concluded in a place that only one other WSU team can claim, in the NCAA Tournament.
Everyone around Pullman will be talking about the 2020-21 Washington State women's basketball for years to come, but this unprecedented season is just the jumping-off point for one of the fastest-rising programs in all of NCAA women's basketball. The Cougars plan to return all five starters in the fall and look to come back to Beasley built for a better 2021-22 campaign.