WASHINGTON STATE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: Illinois ends Cougars' postseason run in WBIT

Apr. 2—Two teams with unlikely paths to the semifinals of a major college basketball tournament and only one would advance to the championship game.

March and April basketball is when some underdog stories are born and others eventually come to die.

The unlikely postseason run for the Washington State women's hoops team ended at the hands of Illinois in the Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament on Monday at famous Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The No. 4 seed Fighting Illinois — playing just two hours away from their campus in Champaign, Ill. — dispatched the No. 1 seed Cougars 81-58 in the WBIT semifinals.

"Just a real simple message: We got beat by a better team," WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. "I thought they were spectacular. Clearly their guard play, and their playmaking ability and shot-making ability are pretty elite."

Illinois guard Makira Cook and WSU point guard Astera Tuhina each scored 20 points to lead their respective squads, but the Fighting Illini (18-15) led from start to finish.

Two unlikely journeys

While the Cougars (21-15) were a top seed in the inaugural WBIT, their journey to postseason success was still a surprise following the loss of the team's best player, Charlisse Leger-Walker, to a season-ending knee injury in January.

The Cougars lost their next five games, struggled through the end of the regular season and fell in the first-round of the Pac-12 tournament.

That stretch relegated them to the WBIT, dashing their hopes of making a fourth straight NCAA tournament.

But the Cougars turned things around in the postseason, winning three straight games to earn a trip to the WBIT semis.

Like WSU, Illinois (18-15) had a rough regular season, finishing with an 8-10 record in the Big Ten and a sub-.500 overall record of 14-15.

The Fighting Illini still earned an invite to the WBIT and now they've turned that opportunity into a chance to cut down a banner.

Illinois won four straight games for the first time all season in the WBIT, including Monday's demolition of the Cougars.

"I thought it was an overall great effort by our team from start to finish against a really good Washington State team that we knew presented a lot of problems for us," Illinois coach Shauna Green said. "In our whole tournament, we've outscored our opponents in that first quarter and I wanted to continue that trend."

More fight for the Fighting Illini

Illinois flew out to a 15-6 lead following an early 9-0 run and the Fighting Illini never looked back.

The mostly pro-Illinois crowd saw Illinois take its first double-digit lead on a Cook jumper that made it 21-11 late in the first quarter.

Cook scored seven of her game-high 20 in the first three minutes of the game as the Fighting Illini shot 61% in the first frame.

The senior guard surpassed her season average by halftime with 16 points in the first two quarters and Illinois led 42-28 at intermission.

The lead stretched to its largest margin of 29 points on a Genesis Bryant traditional three-point play that made it 78-59 with 5:29 to play in the fourth.

"They're a great team; we didn't really guard them well," Tuhina said. "They outscored us in every quarter. To beat teams like this, we have to either guard them better or score more, but we can't be short on offense and also not guard them."

Stars of the game

WSU's biggest contributions came from a pair of underclassmen, which could be a bright spot for the team's future.

Tuhina, a sophomore, went a career-best 5-of-6 from 3-point range and 7-of-10 from the field to get her 20 points.

Freshman guard Eleonora Villa added 14 points.

For Illinois, four players joined Cook in double figures.

Bryant had 18 points, shooting 7-of-11 from the field.

As a team, Illinois outscored WSU 34-12 in the paint.

End of a journey

The loss officially ended WSU's final basketball season as a Pac-12 team, at least for now.

Ten teams will leave the Pac-12 following the spring seasons, leaving behind just WSU and Oregon State. The Cougars will play basketball in the West Coast Conference for the next two seasons.

ILLINOIS (18-15)

Makira Cook 8-13 3-3 20, Genesis Bryant 7-11 1-2 18, Adalia McKenzie 6-10 2-2 14, Camille Hobby 6-10 0-0 12 Kendall Bostic 3-6 0-0 7, Gretchen Dolan 3-6 0-0 7, Cori Allen 1-2 0-0 3, Shay Bollin 0-2 0-0 0, Kam'ren Rhodes 0-2 0-0 0, Brynn Shoup-Hill 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 34-63 6-7 81.


Astera Tuhina 7-10 1-1 20, Eleonora Villa 5-12 2-2 14, Beyonce Bea 3-4 0-0 6, Tara Wallack 1-7 2-2 4, Bella Murekatete 1-4 0-0 2, Jenna Villa 2-6 0-0 6, Kyra Gardner 1-5 0-0 3, Alex Covill 0-1 3-4 3, Jessica Clarke 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 20-51 8-9 58.

Illinois 23 19 20 19—81

Washington St. 14 14 17 13—58

3-Point Goals — Illinois 7-16 (Bryant 3-7, Cook 1-2, Bostic 1-2, Dolan 1-2, Allen 1-1, Bollin 0-1, Shoup-Hill 0-1), Washington St. 10-24 (Tuhina 5-6, E. Villa 2-5, J. Villa 2-5, Gardner 1-4, Wallack 0-4). Rebounds — Illinois 30 (Bostic 9), Washington St. 29 (Murekatete 9). Assists — Illinois 16 (Cook 5), Washington St. 14 (Tuhina, E. Villa, Murekatete 3). Total Fouls — Illinois 13, Washington St. 10. Fouled Out — None. Attendance — 1,748.

Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2260, or on Twitter @StephanSports.