How Washington State embraced its tight-knit team and a Shania Twain song in March’s surprising race

Five years ago, Washington State finished 9-21 in head coach Kamie Ethridge’s first season at the helm.

Now, her Cougars boast a 23-10 record, won the school’s first Pac-12 championship in any women’s sport, and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This squadron of Cougars cemented their place in WSU history. With a group so close-knit, fun and adept at making history on his hands, Ethridge told Yahoo Sports that a big goal this season is finding the perfect balance between enjoying the moment and taking basketball seriously. So far, they’ve succeeded. The mission continues through March.

“We are trying to do the exact same thing [we’ve done throughout the season] as the attention came to us,” Ethridge told Yahoo Sports. “To keep that in perspective and have a great balance of ‘This is the most exciting time of our lives.’ But when we have to prepare for games, and as we prepare for practices, we’re really stuck and we’re all there. And nothing will get in the way of that.”

[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Women’s | Men’s]

A deeper look at Washington State’s folks makes their transformation this season even more storybook-like. The Cougars’ roster is made up entirely of three-star and lower recruits. Over Ethridge’s five seasons, she brought in a wealth of international players. The Cougars’ starting lineup against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game featured athletes from Canada (Tara Wallack), Estonia (Johanna Teder), Rwanda (Bella Murekatete), Australia (Ula Motuga) and New Zealand (Charlisse Leger-Walker ).

“We are all a bunch of kids who committed to WSU based on our love of the sport and the program,” Motuga told Yahoo Sports. “And I think that’s what’s brought us so much success. The fact that we all love each other, play hard for each other, and obviously play hard for our coaches. And I think that’s something you don’t always see in other conferences and among other teams.”

Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge, left center, Ula Motuga, right center, and team celebrate after winning the Pac-12 tournament title on March 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Since returning to Pullman, Washington – population 32,827 – after winning the Pac-12 tournament championship, the Cougars have felt the warm embrace of their quaint but passionate college town. The first time WSU players returned to the athletic mess hall, they were greeted by raucous applause and cheers from their fellow athletes. It’s a big step in the right direction compared to the support women’s basketball received when Motuga started in Washington state five years ago.

“It was really any time [the] losing football team was a good year for WSU,” recalled Motuga. This year, the football team took up an entire section of the bleachers when the women’s basketball team hosted Stanford last month.

“I think as time has gone on, we’ve seen women’s basketball get a lot more attention and success,” she said. “And I think what’s cool is that because we’re such a small town, everyone has really started buying each other more.”

WSU went viral three days before winning its first conference tournament title. The Pac-12 broadcast captured the team celebrating its loss to second-placed Utah in the quarterfinals with a jam session to Grammy-winner Shania Twain’s 1997 hit, “Man! I feel like a woman!”

Over the course of the tournament, the No. 7 Cougars completed back-to-back wins over Cal, Utah, Colorado and UCLA and attracted Twain’s attention from abroad. The Canadian singer-songwriter tweeted her support for WSU while in Switzerland promoting her new album, “Queen of Me”.

The song’s opening line, “Come on, girls,” served as a key theme during the Cougars’ unprecedented run.

On February 23, in the Cougars’ penultimate game of the regular season, Washington State traded leads with UCLA three times, with five ties between them. At one point in the second half, Twain’s song played over the UCLA public address system. The WSU group sang and danced along.

“They have no idea this is our song,” Ethridge said, recalling the crew’s reaction at that moment. “We are going to win this game.”

And they did, 62-55, after losing to the Bruins the month before.

Each corner seems to further ingrain the music into WSU’s identity, Ethridge said.

But how did it start?

It’s hard for Motuga to remember much before the Pac-12 tournament. So it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Twain’s song became the team’s anthem. It was definitely during non-conference play. Motuga estimates mid-December.

Singalongs are a favorite pastime of this Washington State team. At least one lyrical performance by each player is mandatory on long trips. Otherwise, chanting is a more informal practice. A song in the locker room before or after training. A song to fill your free time. Instrumental optional, a cappella accepted.

“Man! I feel like a woman!” is one of Motuga’s top three karaoke selections (Something Luke Combs or Beyoncé would be the other two, although the exact lineup changes based on her mood.) She decided to play in the locker room before the game. The opening line, as a call to action, spurred the team on.

“Let’s go girls!”

WSU ended up winning that fight and the tradition was born.

Motuga made the song WSU’s own by repeating the opening line in the locker room during the pre-game. Ethridge called it the phrase of the season.

“’Come on, it’s time to work,’” she said. “’Come on girls, let’s have some fun off the court.’ It kind of encapsulates everything about what we’re doing. ‘Come on, it’s time to work.’ ‘Come on girls, let’s have fun off the court.’ The camaraderie our team feels, the encouragement, the momentum we are gaining.”

The Cougars have lost just 10 games this season against Division I women’s basketball’s eighth-toughest schedule. Four of those losses coincided with the absence of Leger-Walker, who leads Washington State with 18.1 points per 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 30 women on the Naismith Player of the Year midseason watchlist.

His return was crucial, especially for the WSU conference tournament. She was awarded Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 76 points in the Cougars’ four-game journey to the Pac-12 title. Twenty-three went against UCLA in the championship with 7-of-11 shooting and five 3-pointers.

The Cougars will face Florida’s Gulf Coast in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament (2:30 pm ET Saturday, ESPN). They share a region with No. 1 Indiana, No. 2 Utah, No. 3 LSU, and No. 4 Villanova at Greenville 2. WSU is eager to show that it’s even better than its record and make a run for it. March. .

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