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The Washington State Cougars were an afterthought when the coaches and media sat down to vote in the preseason. They weren’t just last in both polls, they got just over half as many points in the media poll as the 11th-ranked Washington Huskies.
The reasons were simple. The Cougars lost two of the best players in program history with the graduations of Borislava Hristova and Chanelle Molina. Even more concerning, they didn’t seem to have much coming in to replace the production.
That’s where those observers were wrong, as breakout freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker has shown. The younger of the Leger-Walker sisters has made an immediate impact and earned herself three Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors in the early going.
Her team stands at 6–1 overall and 4–1 in Pac-12 play. The lone loss was a four-point defeat at the hands of the Oregon Ducks. The Cougars have only played about 25 percent of their conference schedule, but they are currently sitting in third in the Pac-12. Last week, the team beat Colorado and Utah on the road, giving them their first road sweep since Kamie Ethridge took over the program prior to the 2018–19 season.
Even opposing coaches who had seen Leger-Walker play as a member of the New Zealand national team didn’t expect the young guard to make such an early impression. That includes the coach who will face the Cougars on Sunday.
“I think it’s a surprise to everybody because most people didn’t know who Leger-Walker was,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said on her weekly radio show. “I knew who she was because I had seen her play. I knew she was really good, but I did not know or think that she would help Washington State be so successful. They’re good, but I didn’t think they would do this well.”
Ethridge smiled when asked about the underestimation of her freshman.
“I think she’s deceptive,” Ethridge said. “I just think that’s it. I think there were people in the league in power conferences that were…you know, her body is deceiving. It doesn’t look like a stellar athlete. Maybe it doesn’t. You wonder and question if she’s quick enough. You wonder and question if she’s a good enough athlete. And I’m just telling you that yes. And yes.”
While Leger-Walker is currently leading the Pac-12 with 19.0 ppg, one of the biggest changes for the Cougars this year has been on the defensive end of the court. A team that has had a negative net rating for the past five years is suddenly making inroads precisely because their defensive rating has dramatically improved.
Just last season, WSU gave up 98.4 points per 100 opponents’ possessions. The year before that, it was 103.8 points. This season, they have slashed that number to 87.7 points per 100 possessions. The 60 points per game they allow places them in the top half of the league.
“I don’t think that we have totally different schemes,” Ethridge said. “We have really good physical, I think across the board, more physical guard defenders this year, and obviously more depth behind them. But Krystal and Charlisse and even Jo, all three of them are kind of stronger, maybe a little bit thicker. But they…don’t give away any speed or athleticism or lateral movement. They’re all really quick in those areas. And they’re just really committed to guarding the ball. And I think Ula (Motuga) is more committed. I think Bella (Murekatete is) more fundamental and disciplined in our defensive schemes. So we just have a lot of versatility with our guard play, because, primarily, we’re better on-ball defenders than we’ve been in the past.”
The Cougars will need to be as they head into another match-up with a top 10 team. Both №7 Arizona and Washington State had their Friday night games canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Arizona State and Washington programs. So, they had all week to prepare for each other on Sunday.
On-ball defense by their guards and the ability of Murekatete to block at the rim will be crucial if the Cougars are going to slow down Arizona guard Aari McDonald. Murekatete is averaging 1.7 blocks per game this year, good for fourth in the conference. As a team, the Cougars are rejecting 5.1 shots per game.
The improved rebounding that Ethridge also cited as key to her team’s progress this season will also be important. While the Cougars have improved — going from 34.5 rebounds per game last season to 38.1 rpg this year — they still trail a Wildcat team that considers rebounding to be one of its weaknesses.
Every year, the team picked last in the conference says that they know they can surprise some people. For Washington State, it looks like that wasn’t just an empty platitude.