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The First

Sep 14, 2022

Editor's Note: The following story is part of a series highlighting the members of the 2022 Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame Class. The Hall of Fame induction will take place, Sept. 16-17, at the Washington State University campus. The induction dinner will be held Sept. 16 at Beasley Coliseum with the 2022 class also being recognized at the Washington State-Colorado State football game at Gesa Field the following day. 

When she looks back on the 1991 Washington State women's basketball season, Heather Gores pauses.

"There are so many things you try to recollect more than 30 years ago," Gores, the Associate Athletic Director/Internal Operations at Gonzaga University, said by phone. 

"You don't necessarily remember all the games you played and the outcomes," Gores added, a junior guard on the 1991 team. "It's the people, the relationships, and the experiences you had. Those are the things that stick with you over time."

Gores coach, Harold Rhodes, shares a similar sentiment. 

"That was a special team," said Rhodes, head coach of the Cougar women's basketball team from 1983-1999, from his home in Alabama. 

"The chemistry of the group, their personalities," Rhodes added. "They were so tough mentally, constantly overcoming adversity and injuries. That didn't keep them from accomplishing their goals."

Over three decades after the Cougars reached their goal, the NCAA Tournament, the 1991 team will be immortalized with induction to the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame.

Experience, competition, and adversity

The Cougars entered the 1991 season with an experienced crew, returning nine letterwinners and five starters to a team that, despite a 17-11 mark and a 9-9 mark in Pac-10 play during the 1990 season, just missed on an NCAA Tournament berth.

"It was one of those stepping-stones where things started to come together," said Rhodes of the 1990 season.

With a wealth of experience to draw from, the Cougars entered the 1991 season with confidence that a bid to the NCAA Tournament would be extended in March.

"When you know you're knocking on the door, and when you know you're that close, it motivates you to get there," Gores said.

"For the first time, we have a veteran group," Rhodes was quoted in a season preview release. "We have people who are proven players at this level and we know exactly what those people can do."

Rhodes amped-up the competition in the practices to prepare the team for what was ahead.

"We tried to prepare our team that when they stepped on the floor against an opponent they had the confidence that we're just as good as they are," Rhodes said. "We wanted to make our practices harder than what they faced in a game, so that no one would step back from a challenge, but step forward and meet that challenge."

"You're always competing day in and day out for time on the court," Gores recalled. "Practice was harder than a game. Practice was structured to create that competitive environment, which we certainly had."

The Cougars started strong, winning seven of their first eight games, but adversity would soon hit in the form of injuries to three starters.

In December, it was announced that senior guard Charnez Brown, tabbed as the starting point guard, would redshirt the season due to a stress fracture in her right leg.  

Then, junior forward Kristal Stahl went down with a hip injury and senior forward Angie Miller was lost after suffering a right knee injury at Arizona State, Jan. 3.

The experiences the team possessed proved to pay dividends in order to overcome the injuries.

"We had a lot of depth," said Gores (maiden name Norman), one of the nine returning letterwinners from the 1990 team.

Backs against the wall

The Cougars dealt with the adversity well enough to compile a 16-7 mark heading into the final stretch of the regular season; however, postseason chances, which seemed inevitable, were dealt a blow with three straight losses.

Any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid rode on the outcome of the final two regular season games against Arizona and Arizona State at Bohler Gym.

Rhodes credits his assistant coaches, Kellee Knowles and Sunny Smallwood, with getting the team in the right frame of mind heading into those critical games.

"They rallied the group," he said. "They were so important to maintaining the confidence level of the team."

"I remember how big it was," Gores said. "Our backs were against the wall."

The Cougars met the challenge, winning both games by double-digits, defeating Arizona 85-75 and Arizona State 69-58. With the two wins, the Cougars finished the season with an 18-10 overall record and a 10-8 mark in the Pac-10, good for a tie for fourth place.

Now it was time to wait.

The Arizona State game was played Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. That Sunday morning, Rhodes was getting ready for church when he received a phone call from senior associate athletic director Marcia Saneholtz.

The long-awaited dream had become reality. 

"Very excited," Rhodes remembered his feeling when hearing the news his team was headed to the NCAA Tournament.

And then a new reality hit.

"That Sunday and Monday was just a major scramble for us."

With little time to prepare, the Cougars would travel to Northwestern for a first-round game that Wednesday with the winner traveling to play at Arkansas, Saturday.

The travel from Pullman to Northwestern did not go smoothly.

"We hit Chicago in a blizzard," Gores recalled.

Things didn't get better when gametime arrived, as the Cougars fell behind by as much as 26 points to the Wildcats. Although a 19-1 second-half run made it a game, WSU fell to Northwestern, 82-62.

Despite the disappointing end to the season, it didn't lessen the magnitude of the achievement. 

A special team

Rhodes recalled a conversation he had with men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team earned a bid to the NIT the following season.

"His comment to me was I would rather lose in the first round of the NCAA then win the NIT," Rhodes said. "That statement helped us to realize what an accomplishment we had being invited to the tournament. It's such a great honor to reach that level."

Rhodes earned Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors, the first WSU women's basketball coach to garner the accolade, and the 18 wins were a school-record, as were the 10 Pac-10 Conference victories.

Senior center Kristin Metson led the team in both scoring (14.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg), en route to shooting a then-school record 55.1 percent.  Gores led the way from behind-the-arc for WSU, hitting a then WSU single-season record 61 3-point field goals. 

The team held the distinction as the only WSU women's basketball team to make an NCAA Tournament for 30 seasons, until the 2020-21 team earned an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament under head coach Kamie Ethridge.

Ethridge and the Cougars made it back-to-back appearances with a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2022.

"The job that Coach Ethridge is doing now it's unbelievable," Rhodes said. "You really have to tip your hat to what she and the team are accomplishing now."

While the current women's basketball team is setting standards for the program, the 1991 team will always have a unique spot in Washington State Athletics history.

"Being the first women's basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament, that will always be there," Rhodes said. "That was a special team."