VILLANOVA, Pa. — There is zero doubt this was the best season in Washington State women’s basketball history. Maybe in any WSU women’s team sport.
The Cougars were hoping it could’ve been a bit better.
Fifth-seeded WSU was stifled in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season, this time falling 74-63 to 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday at Finneran Pavilion.
It was a disappointing ending for a team that was fresh off an underdog run through the Pac-12 tournament as a No. 7 seed, earning the school’s first women’s Pac-12 team championship in any sport.
Now, the Cougars (23-11) will have to wait another year to try to get that elusive first win in the national tourney.
The Eagles (33-3) racked up 30 points in a huge third quarter that helped turn WSU’s 32-31 halftime lead into a 61-48 FGCU advantage.
FGCU guard Sha Carter piled up 24 points on a 10-of-13 shooting performance.
The Eagles advance to play Villanova (29-6), 76-59 winners against Cleveland State later in the day, in a second-round game at a time to be determined Monday at the same site.
WSU star guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, who averaged more than 18 points per game going in, fouled out of the game midway through the fourth quarter with just five points.
Sophomore guard Tara Wallack led WSU with a 16-point, 12-rebound double-double and senior guard Johanna Teder (11 points) and senior center Bella Murekatete (10) also reached double figures.
“There’s so many great moments this season that we’re going to celebrate and not forget, but I hope it’s a gut punch for the ones that are coming back,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “My sadness really falls on the fact we couldn’t do it for our seniors.”
WSU scored first on a Leger-Walker layup 13 seconds in and jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the game’s first three minutes.
But that was as good as it would get for the Cougars.
The Eagles, who are playing in their sixth straight NCAA tournament and ninth since 2012, looked the part of an experienced team.
FGCU went on a 13-0 run in which it held WSU scoreless for almost six minutes and went up 15-9 in the first.
The Cougars battled back in a back-and-forth second quarter before the FGCU offense exploded in the third — the biggest difference in the game.
“We made a lot of crucial mistakes,” WSU senior forward Ula Motuga said. “You look at the third quarter, they blew us out and that’s pretty much where it went downhill from there.”
Despite being the smaller team, the speedy Eagles outscored the Cougs 50-26 in the paint and didn’t allow WSU to get comfortable on offense.
Tishara Morehouse added 16 points for the Eagles, who shot 55.6% from the floor and put four players in double figures.
“We have a team that can be explosive,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko said.
WSU shot 38.9% as a team.
A key moment came when FGCU’s Maddie Antenucci hit three 3-pointers — including one that bounced on the rim four times before falling through the net — in a one-minute span.
That stretch in the third quarter put the Eagles up 49-40 and also included Leger-Walker’s fourth foul, sending her to the bench at a pivotal time in the game.
“There’s so many things that I need to work on individually in my own game, especially in these big games and big moments,” Leger-Walker said. “I just feel horrible about my performance tonight and how I kind of performed for the team.”
Motuga (four points) is the lone Cougar starter without eligibility remaining. Seniors Teder and Murekatete still have COVID eligibility left, meaning WSU should still be a dangerous team next season.
WSU season ends with several records, among them the most wins in program history, becoming the lowest seed to ever win the Pac-12 tournament and Leger-Walker’s record 76 points in the conference tourney.
The only goal it didn’t accomplish was getting that first NCAA tourney victory. WSU is 0-4 all time, although three of those appearances came in the past three years.
The Cougars’ only previous trip to March Madness was the 1990-91 season, when they also fell in the first round.
“Obviously very, very hungry to come back and help this team get past that first round,” Leger-Walker said. “The last three years we haven’t managed to do that. So that’s something that’s definitely personal for me that I want to help this team do.”
FLORIDA GULF COAST (33-3)
Carter 10-13 3-5 24, List 1-2 0-0 2, Morehouse 7-16 1-1 16, Stiles 1-2 2-4 4, Winston 2-9 1-2 5, Ezeudu 0-1 0-0 0, Adams 6-8 0-1 12, Antenucci 3-3 2-2 11, Bartram 0-0 0-0 0, Webb 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 30-54 9-15 74.
WASHINGTON ST. (23-11)
Motuga 2-4 0-0 4, Murekatete 3-6 4-4 10, Leger-Walker 2-10 0-0 5, Teder 4-6 0-0 11, Wallack 5-11 4-8 16, Glazier 0-0 2-2 2, Gardner 0-0 0-0 0, Sarver 2-2 2-2 6, Tuhina 3-13 2-2 9, Woods 0-1 0-0 0, Clarke 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-54 14-18 63.
FGCU 17 14 30 13 — 74
Washington St. 13 19 16 15 — 63
3-Point Goals: Florida Gulf Coast 5-14 (Antenucci 3-3, Carter 1-3, Morehouse 1-4, List 0-1, Ezeudu 0-1, Winston 0-2), Washington St. 7-26 (Teder 3-5, Wallack 2-5, Leger-Walker 1-7, Tuhina 1-8, Woods 0-1). Fouled Out: Leger-Walker. Rebounds: Florida Gulf Coast 27 (List 7), Washington St. 32 (Wallack 12). Assists: Florida Gulf Coast 11 (List 3, Winston 3), Washington St. 13 (Tuhina 6). Total Fouls: Florida Gulf Coast 15, Washington St. 20. A: N/A.