NCAA Tournament: How Washington State embraced its tight-knit team and Shania Twain songstress in a surprising March run
Five years ago, Washington State finished 9-21 in head coach Cammy Etheridge’s first season at the helm.
Now, her Cougars boast a 23-10 record, winning the school’s first Pac-12 championship in any women’s sport and earning a No. 1 ranking. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This squad of the Cougars cemented its place in WSU history. With a tight-knit, fun-loving, history-making squad on her hands, Etheridge told Yahoo Sports that a big goal this season is finding the perfect balance between enjoying the moment and getting serious about basketball. So far they have succeeded. The mission continues through March.
“We’re trying to do exactly the same thing [we’ve done throughout the season] Because the attention has gotten to us,” Etheridge told Yahoo Sports. “To keep it straight and strike a great balance between, ‘This is the most exciting time of our lives. there. Nothing will stand in the way of that.”
[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Women’s | Men’s]
A deeper look at the Washington State staff makes its turnaround this season more like a storybook. The Cougars roster is made up entirely of three-star recruits and under. Over the course of Etheridge’s five seasons, she brought in a wealth of international players. The starting lineup for the Cougars against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game includes athletes from Canada (Tara Wallach), Estonia (Johana Tedder), Rwanda (Bela Murikatiti), Australia (Ola Mutoga) and New Zealand (Charlice Legere-Walker).
“We are all a group of kids who made a commitment to WSU based on our love of the sport and our love of the program,” Mutoga told Yahoo Sports. And I think that’s ultimately what brought us a lot of success. The fact that we all love each other, we play hard for each other, and we obviously play hard for our coaches. And I think that’s just something you don’t always see in other conferences and between other teams.”
Since their return to Pullman, Washington — population 32,827 — after winning the Pac-12 Championship, the Cougars have felt the warm embrace of their quaint, but ardent college town. The first time the WSU players returned to their sports dining hall, they were greeted with wild applause and shouts from their fellow student-athletes. It’s a huge step in the right direction compared to the support women’s basketball received when Mutoga first started at Washington State five years ago.
“It was really anytime [the] The football team’s win was a good year for WSU,” Mutoga recalled. This year, the football team filled an entire section of the stands when it hosted the Stanford women’s hoops last month.
“I think with time now, we’ve seen women’s basketball get more attention and success,” she said. “And I think the cool thing is that, since we’re such a small town, everybody’s really starting to buy each other more.”
WSU went viral with three days left to claim its first conference tournament title. The Pac-12 broadcast captured the team celebrating their No. 1 crash. 2 seed Utah in the quarterfinals with a jam session of Grammy winner Shania Twain in 1997. “Man! I feel like a woman!”
Over the course of the tournament, no. The 7-ranked Cougars completed a streak of straight wins over Cal, Utah, Colorado and UCLA and attracted interest from outside Twain. The Canadian singer-songwriter tweeted her support for WSU while she was in Switzerland promoting her new album, “Queen of Me.”
The song’s opening line, “Let’s go, girls,” served as the theme throughout the Cougars unprecedented season.
in feb. 23 In the Cougars’ penultimate regular season game, Washington State traded the lead with UCLA three times with five ties between them. At one point in the second half, Twain’s song was played over UCLA’s PA system. They sang and danced along at WSU.
“They have no idea this is our song,” said Etheridge, recalling the group’s reaction at that moment. “We will win this match.”
And they did 62-55after Loses to the Bruins Previous Month.
Each song seems to infuse the song with WSU’s identity, Etheridge said.
But how did you get started?
It’s hard for Motuga to remember much before the Pac-12 Championship. So keeping track of the exact timing when “Twain” became the team’s anthem is difficult. It was definitely during non-conference play. Motuga estimated mid to late December.
Singalongs are a favorite pastime of the Washington State team. At least one singing performance from each player is mandatory on long trips. Otherwise, singing is a more informal practice. A song in the locker room before or after workouts. Tune in to occupy their spare time. Optional machine, Capella accepted.
“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” is one of Motuga’s top three karaoke picks (something from Luke Combs or Beyoncé would be the other two, though the exact lineup changes based on her mood). She decided to play it in the locker room before the game. The opening line, like a call to action, prompts the team to act.
“Let’s go, girls!”
WSU ended up winning that game, and the tradition was born.
Motuga made the song WSU’s own by repeating the opening line in the locker room during the pregame. Ethridge called it the phrase of the season.
“Let’s go,” she said, “it’s time to get to work.” “Let’s go girls, let’s have fun outside the field.” This kind of thing sums up everything about what we do. “Let’s go, it’s time to get to work.” Let’s go girls, let’s have some fun outside the playground. The camaraderie our team feels, the encouragement, and the momentum we gain.”
The Cougars have lost just 10 games this season against the eighth toughest schedule in Division I Women’s Basketball. Four of those losses coincided with the absence of Legere-Walker, who leads Washington State with 18.1 points a game (which ranks third in the Pac-12) and 4.2 assists per game (good for second in the conference). She was named to the All-Pac-12 team and one of the 30 women on the Naismith Player of the Year watch list at midseason.
Her comeback proved crucial, especially for the WSU conference championship. She was named Most Valuable Player after scoring 76 points in the Cougars’ four-game trip to the Pac-12 title. Twenty-three against UCLA came in the tournament on 7-for-11 shooting and five 3s.
The Cougars will face the Florida Gulf Coast in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament (2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN). They share an area with no. 1 seed Indiana, no. 2 Seed Utah, no. 3 LSU seeds and No. 4 seeded Villanova in Greenville 2. WSU is eager to show that it is even better than its record and to make a deep run in March.