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WSU's season to be celebrated, used as motivation

Mar. 25—In the college basketball world, March is when the magic happens and what a magical month it was for the Washington State women's basketball team.

A conference championship as the lowest seed to win the Pac-12 tournament. A program record for wins in a season. The first conference team title in any women's sport. A third consecutive berth to the NCAA tournament. Multiple team shoutouts from country singing legend Shania Twain.

The list could go on.

What fifth-year coach Kamie Ethridge and her scrappy collection of Cougars have done the past three seasons, and especially in 2022-23, is nothing short of remarkable and inspiring.

But it all ended on a sour note when fifth-seeded WSU fell to 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast 74-63 in the first round of the Big Dance, falling to 0-4 in the national tourney and 0-3 in the past three seasons.

Whether 33-4 FGCU should've been a No. 12 seed is open for debate, but that didn't make the March 18 loss any less disappointing.

"There's so many great moments of the season that we're going to celebrate and not forget, but I hope it's a gut punch for the ones that are coming back," Ethridge said after the game.

Before looking to the future, let's take a look at some of those big moments Ethridge is talking about.

Finishing 23-11, breaking a 44-year program record of 21 wins set by the 1978-79 team.

Beating Washington 66-52 on Jan. 8 to split the Apple Cup series.

Knocking off No. 17 UCLA 62-55 for the first time ever in Los Angeles on Feb. 23.

Upsetting No. 3 Utah 66-58 in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal round March 2. The Utes would later go on to make it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tourney.

Toppling the Bruins again, this time 65-61 in the March 5 Pac-12 title game to win the tournament as a No. 7 seed and earn the school's first ever women's championship.

Star guard Charlisse Leger-Walker finishing with a Pac-12-record 76 points in the conference tournament.

The team earning a third consecutive berth to the NCAA tournament 32 years after its only previous trip in 1991.

As has been mentioned ad nauseum, Twain's support for the team on social media after the Cougs went viral for jamming out to her song "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" during the tournament. The singer will perform in Spokane on April 28, so there could be a new chapter in the Twain-WSU saga.

Not a bad resume for a team that a few years ago was an afterthought in the conference.

The craziest thing is three of WSU's starters who were starters on all three of the NCAA tournament teams — Leger-Walker (17.7 points per game), senior center Bella Murekatete (13.8 points, 7.0 rebounds) and senior guard Johanna Teder (7.9 points) — can return next season, as can first-year starter Tara Wallack (9.4).

If Leger-Walker, Murekatete and Teder end up starting on a fourth straight NCAA tourney team next season, that would be almost unprecedented for a basketball trio.

Winning is hard, particularly in a women's basketball conference as tough as the Pac-12 and at a program as remote as Washington State.

This year might have been the Cougars' best chance to advance in the NCAA tournament, but with how many teams the conference regulaly puts in tourney, it definitely won't be their last, especially with Ethridge leading the way.

The 2023-24 season can't come soon enough for the Cougs.

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