WSU emerges as enticing place to play for women’s hoops

Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, shooting, will return next season after winning the Pac-12’s freshman of the year award.

The recruiting pitch Kamie Ethridge currently employs is far more alluring than the one in use six months ago.

“In November or October, we’re still talking about, ‘We’re building our culture. We’re going to be in Year 3, and we think we’re going to be better,’” the Washington State women’s basketball coach recently said on a Zoom call.

“You had to believe we were going to be good. You had to believe that, by the time you get here, we’re going to be established.”

WSU’s breakthrough season — perhaps the program’s best yet — turned the tides in Pullman, where constructing a Pac-12 contender featuring top-flight talents mostly had been inconceivable for the past few decades.

Now that Wazzu has emerged as an enticing place to play, Ethridge’s phone calls with potential recruits are striking a new chord.

“You’re like, ‘Hey, in Year 3 we turned this thing. We did it faster than a lot of people have,’” Ethridge continued.

“That success validates that the culture’s in place, the players are here. It validates what we’d been saying, that we can turn this thing around, that we can make it into a winner.”

WSU fielded a consistently competitive outfit, which claimed two victories against top-10 teams — one versus national runner-up Arizona — and earned its second bid to the NCAA tournament, and first in 30 years. The list of landmark achievements, which includes a first-ever national ranking and a first win over a top-five opponent, goes on.

The Cougs (12-12) ultimately fell in the first round of the Big Dance to South Florida.

But the campaign signaled the beginning of WSU’s rise to Pac-12 relevance after two seasons of under-the-radar development, and recruitment of strong, poised competitors who rivaled the conference’s cream of the crop and helped usher in a resurgence predicated on resolute defense.

“We hadn’t been physically or mentally tough enough before this year,” Ethridge said. “That was a big improvement. ... It’s more about buy-in.”

Ethridge doesn’t need to address “culture building” much anymore.

She said the shift could be seen in practices, during which “nitpicking” and “explaining culture through good and bad behavior” from coaches was less frequent than in years past.

“It should become a standard within your team that the kids are telling young players how it is, and everybody responds,” she said. “As coaches, our voices need to become less loud.

“That happened this season, but not to the level it needs to. I think we’re on the verge of it being a player-driven culture, where the standard is what they want, what we want and what a championship culture looks like.”

Key to the turnaround, as much as anything, were a few newcomers at guard who supplied WSU much-needed firepower.

True freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker was an immediate revelation, a super-scoring stat-sheet-stuffer and pest on defense who earned the conference’s rookie of the year award.

Her final line of averages speaks for itself: 18.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game. She was the first freshman in Pac-12 history to lead the league in total points (452).

“(Recruits) look at her, and they want to play with someone like that,” Ethridge said of the New Zealand national team standout who never shied from big moments.

Ethridge’s priority going forward for Leger-Walker is to boost her field-goal and 3-point percentages of 35.3 and 32.8, respectively.

“Because she played so many minutes, she missed shots that she doesn’t when she’s not tired,” Ethridge said. “She’s a better shooter than her numbers showed.”

An effective method could be to improve the depth underneath her. WSU was short-handed in its backcourt, particularly after Cherilyn Molina elected to conclude her hoops career for personal reasons in February.

“It’s certainly better this year, but we’re still an injury away of a key player, then all of a sudden, we can’t win a close game,” Ethridge said.

Leger-Walker’s sister, senior point guard Krystal, was WSU’s defensive ace and top distributor after following Ethridge from Northern Colorado. She paced the Pac-12 in total assists (109).

Krystal Leger-Walker announced via Twitter on Friday that she has accepted an extra year of eligibility.

"Let's run it back and better," Ethridge tweeted. "(You) have made a lot of COUGS happy tonight!!"

Sharpshooting sophomore juco transfer Johanna Teder’s “percentage went up markedly” as the season progressed. She hit four 3s and tallied 16 points in the NCAA tourney game.

Those first-year Cougs stepped into instant starting roles without “rocking the boat.” To Ethridge, that was another encouraging sign of the program’s growth.

“If your culture’s not in place and those kids (returners) aren’t great teammates and all about the program, then that influx of talent can’t work,” she said. "I give so much credit to the culture piece of the players who were already a part of the program.

"They bought in and said, 'Man, we want to win, and this is the level of talent we need.'"

Center Bella Murekatete and forward Ula Motuga will return next year for their third seasons as starters. “The best thing we can have,” Ethridge said, “is experience,” and WSU’s lineup in 2021-22 won’t be short on it.

Incoming recruits include 6-foot-2 Canadian guard Tara Wallack — a “versatile wing player” — and juco All-American guard Leah Mafua, another New Zealand product who’s smooth with the ball in her hands and can guard three positions.

Ethridge’s attention has turned to the NCAA transfer portal. The Cougs have one remaining scholarship to hand out, so reeling in a graduate transfer “who’s looking to find a hot team and help right away” is the emphasis.

Simultaneously, Wazzu is making contact with prospects from the 2022 and 2023 classes. Adding reserve posts is the goal there.

But “we’re not going to turn down great players at any position,” Ethridge said. “At this point, we know we have great young players in our program, and you’ve got to put pieces around them that play our style and are high-IQ and high-energy players.

“It’s a little mix of anything goes, but the exciting thing is that we’re getting interest from a higher level of player.”

BEAT THE BEST — Late heroics from Charlisse Leger-Walker lifted WSU past No. 7 Arizona in overtime Jan. 10. The Wildcats fell to Stanford in the national title game Sunday.

It was WSU’s first win against an eventual national championship finalist.

“It’s amazing. It shows you there’s parity in our game and it’s getting better,” Ethridge said.

Yet for Ethridge, no moment this season tops watching her Cougs celebrate their NCAA tournament berth.

“I want us to be just as excited next year when we’re in it, and I want us dancing a bit further.”

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib, or by phone at (208) 627-3209.