It’s crunch time in the conference for WSU women

Washington State senior guard Krystal Leger-Walker has been the team’s most consistent player of late heading into this weekend’s games at USC and UCLA.

PULLMAN — Since the Washington State women’s basketball team rocked Boise State 62-55 on Dec. 18 to improve to 8-1 at the time, the Cougs have been trying to replicate their early-season success.

However, WSU is 1-4 in the 26 days since, with one game canceled and another postponed because of coronavirus protocols.

That brutal stretch includes losses to then-No. 20 BYU, No. 2 Stanford and No. 4 Arizona.

This week, WSU (9-5, 1-2 Pac-12) will escape the frozen Palouse for sunny southern California, where they’ll try to get back on track against USC at 7 p.m. today and UCLA at noon Sunday.

“I’m excited about our team,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said at her weekly news conference. “I think we’ve had some good practices and we obviously want to play every game. We’re looking forward to taking on USC and UCLA this week.”

The Trojans (8-4, 1-1) are coming off an upset of Arizona, while the Bruins (5-4, 0-1) have played just one game, a loss to Colorado, in the past four weeks because of COVID-19 cancellations and postponements.

“It’s a wild league,” Ethridge said. “USC upsets a team and UCLA maybe struggled a tiny bit compared to what you’d expect.”

As teams like WSU navigate the heart of their conference schedules to start the new year, they also traverse obstacles presented by the pandemic.

The Bruins had six consecutive games canceled or postponed before they faced the Buffaloes this past Sunday.

USC and UCLA will have limited fans in attendance because of the virus. The games are closed to the general public.

Ethridge said the restriction on fans obviously helps the road team, but it’s not the way the Cougs want to play.

“We all hate that,” she said. “I don’t think our players want to play in an empty gym. They’ve all done that (before).

“Whether it’s good or bad for us, it’s not how we want to be playing.”

For the Cougs, the focus is on the cliche “control what you can control.”

“When you look at our resume and the people we’ve played, we feel pretty good about where we are and what we know about ourselves,” Ethridge said.

For the second straight season, sophomore guard Charlisse Leger-Walker leads the Cougs in scoring, although her numbers are slightly down from a year ago. She’s averaging 16.6 points per game compared to 18.8 last season.

WSU’s other double-digit scorer is junior center Bella Murekatete at 10.2. She also averages 7.6 rebounds and has 27 blocks on the season. Her 107 total rebounds are tops in the conference.

Ethridge said she challenged the junior after foul trouble limited her to just two points in 10 minutes in a 82-44 loss Jan. 2 to Stanford.

“I think I was really hard on Bella after the Stanford game, and I thought she had a great four or five days of practice leading up to the Arizona trip, and I thought she stepped in and gave us some good possessions.

“I like how she’s responded.”

The most consistent Cougar lately might be senior guard Krystal Leger-Walker, who is coming off back-to-back 12-point performances and leads the team in assists at 5.4 per contest.

“I think Krystal is just a great leader … she’s a little basketball junky,” Ethridge said.

The coach said the Trojans are a “scary team,” one the Cougs have had trouble with since Ethridge took charge in in 2018. The Trojans won the two meetings a year ago.

“Whether there’s a crowd or not, we want to be really competitive for 40 minutes and we want to give ourselves a chance to win,” Ethridge said.

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