Washington State steals Pac-12 headlines

It’s the Cougars' first victory over a Top 10 team since January 6, 2017

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Headed into the weekend, the big national story in the Pac-12 was the match-up between No. 1 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon. Aren’t those the teams everyone is accustomed to talking about? Why might a game in Pullman, Wash. be more compelling?

The Washington State Cougars were putting together a good record early in the season. Going into their game against the No. 7 Arizona Wildcats on Sunday, they had lost only once all season—a four-point defeat by the Oregon Ducks. Still, people questioned if they were for real.

The Cougars proved on Sunday that they are, in fact, for real. After defeating Arizona 71-69 in overtime, they now stand alone in second place in the conference often called the most difficult in the country. That’s 10 spots higher than both the coaches and media thought WSU would finish this season.

“It's amazing that we can take on some ranked teams and just really prove that we deserve to be in the top half of the Pac-12,” WSU freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker said.

It’s the Cougars’ first victory over a Top 10 team since Jan. 6, 2017, when they defeated No. 9 UCLA 82-73. They had faced 18 chances since then—almost all of them in conference play—and had rarely been close to a victory.

Leger-Walker deserves a lot of the credit. After all, she ended up leading her team in scoring and getting last-second buckets to both send the game to overtime and seal the win. It would be a mistake to think she didn’t have a lot of help, though.

The younger of the two Leger-Walker sisters went into the game leading the Pac-12 in scoring with 19.0 ppg but struggled in the first half. At halftime, she had just three points on 1-4 shooting.

Her team had been down by as many as 16 in the first 20 minutes. The hole could have been much deeper, but sophomore post Bella Murekatete made her presence known. Murekatete would lead the Cougars in scoring during regulation, ending with 14 points and 7 rebounds.

As the half approached, Arizona had the chance to push the lead back out to 17 or more. Instead, Ula Motuga and Cherilyn Molina stepped up.

Motuga grabbed a rebound on the defensive end, then scored on the other. Then, Molina stole the ball from Arizona’s Aari McDonald with three seconds left and laid it in. A deficit that could have been almost 20 points was a much more manageable 11.

“We played amazingly as a team,” Leger-Walker said. “Everyone, whether they were on the court, off the court, had an impact in the game. Whether they were giving tremendous energy on the bench or coming out and getting a stop, hitting a three, getting a layup, getting a steal. Everything.”

The Cougars rode that momentum. The Wildcats built their lead back to 16 in the third, but Washington State still refused to go away.

It would be Leger-Walker who would push the game to overtime with seconds to go in regulation. It would be Leger-Walker who would hit the winner at the buzzer in overtime. But it’s something for a program starved for success to hang its collective hat on.

“Coming to Washington, I always knew that there was so much potential,” Leger-Walker said. “And talking to the coaches prior to even coming, I could see the culture they were trying to build and what they were trying to do with the program. And being a part of a team that's now being successful in the Pac-12 is really special and amazing. And I'm just happy to be on that journey with them.”

That journey could be to a place WSU has not been in 30 years. The Cougars have not been part of the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Head coach Kamie Ethridge sees some light at the end of that tunnel.

“The beauty of being in a power conference like the Pac-12, it's not like you got to go beat Oregon or Stanford to get into the tournament,” Ethridge said. “And that's the hard part of being at a mid-major. You can't mess up. Second place isn't going to get there. You know, but there is a little bit of hope when you're taking over a program when you know you only have to get to six because six might make the NCAA tournament and a couple years ago five of those six made it to the Sweet 16.”

As for Stanford and Oregon, their game on Friday cemented the Cardinal as the power of the Pac-12. And they once again proved they could do it against the odds.

In the first weekend back from the holiday break, Stanford and California traveled to play against Arizona State and Arizona. On Jan. 1, the game between the Golden Bears and the Sun Devils was delayed for 3.5 hours due to COVID-19 protocols.

On Jan. 3, the Cardinal played ASU at Desert Financial Arena. Then, on Jan. 5, the Sun Devils announced that they were entering a pause due to COVID-19 in their program. Stanford’s Lexie Hull, Hannah Jump, and Alyssa Jerome were all forced to quarantine due to contact tracing.

Despite being down three players and still having to play their games away from Maples Pavilion due to restrictions in their home county, the Cardinal took the 70-63 victory over the Ducks. What can’t they do?