LAS VEGAS (AP)Washington State capped off one of the most improbable runs in Pac-12 Tournament history by winning the school’s first title.
Charlisse Leger-Walker scored 23 points and Bella Murekatete added 21 as the seventh-seeded Cougars earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament by beating No. 19 UCLA 65-61 in the championship game Sunday.
“I would have never thought we could do it,” fifth-year coach Kamie Ethridge said. “I don’t even think when I took the job I thought this was possible in this kind of a league.”
Washington State won four games in five days, beating No. 10 seed California, No. 2 seed Utah, No. 3 seed Colorado and finally UCLA.
Leger-Walker carried them to the championship.
“Never would have thought we would be doing that,” she said of cutting down the net after winning the title. “That moment just felt so surreal.”
It had been a rough season for the New Zealand native, who went home twice during the season. Once to see her grandmother, Mere Smith, when she became ill, and a second time for Smith’s funeral.
On Sunday, Leger-Walker honored her grandmother.
“This whole tournament, I think, my Nana’s been looking over me,” she said. “This one was definitely for her and for my family back home.”
It was the first-ever Pac-12 championship for Washington State in a women’s sport. It will be the Cougars’ third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Up by three with 9 seconds left, Washington State’s Astera Tuhina got a piece of a 3-point attempt by UCLA’s Charisma Osborne. With the arrow pointing their way, the Cougars took possession after a held ball on the rebound, and Tara Wallack hit one of two free throws with 5.1 seconds left to give Washington State a four-point lead.
Tuhina had six assists and Wallack added eight rebounds for the Cougars (23-10).
While it’s been players like Leger-Walker and Murekatete grabbing the headlines, Tuhina’s teammates praised her maturity and poise as a freshman.
“We’ve been saying since the first time she stepped on the campus, Astera is not a freshman,” Murekatete said. “She has the experience, she has the IQ – everything about AT – she has a great feeling for the game. I’m just so blessed and thankful to have her on the team.
“Her poise, how she reads the defense, how she’s so good at offense really helped us with every single thing we needed in the last moment,” Murekatete added.
Osborne led the Bruins (25-9) with 19 points. Kiki Rice scored 13 points and Emily Bessoir added 11 for UCLA.
“I think we definitely could have executed better setting new screens, play with pace, play with tempo,” Rice said. “I think it’s more on us being able to execute our offense and get the looks that we want to get.”
Washington State shot 22 of 41 (53.7%) from the floor, including 7 of 11 (63.6%) from 3-point range. The Cougars were the most efficient team in the tournament, shooting 46.2% (92 of 199).
UCLA came in as the highest-scoring team in the tournament, averaging 74.3 points on 38.5% shooting after three games, but struggled to find any rhythm from the opening tip, suffocated by the tournament’s No. 1 scoring defense. The Bruins finished 22 of 60 (36.7%) from the floor and 26.3% (5 of 19) from 3-point range.
Though they held a four-point lead after one quarter, the Bruins were cold from the outset. They hit just 35% (7 of 20) in the first quarter, including 1 of 6 (16.7%) from 3-point range, and followed that with a 30.8% clip (4 of 13) in the second period.
Leger-Walker set the tournament record with 76 points. She reached double figures in each game, scoring 23, 15, 15 and 23 points. Her 11 3-pointers tied for the sixth most made in a single tournament.
ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM
Joining Leger-Walker on the All-Tournament team were Murekatete, Rice and Osborne, along with Emily Bessoir (UCLA) and Cameron Brink (Stanford).
Washington State: The Cougars were the first No. 7 seed to advance to the Pac-12 championship game. The previous lowest seed to make the championship round was the No. 6 seed, in 2009 (USC) and 2022 (Utah).
UCLA: After being held to just two points in the first half, on 1-of-6 shooting, Rice bolstered the Bruins’ 8-0 start to the third quarter with five points. In the second half, the freshman guard hit 4 of 10 from the field.
The teams await their NCAA Tournament seeding, with UCLA sure to receive an at-large bid.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25