What a night for WSU basketball

The men easily handled UW, while the women surged into the Pac-12 semis with a win over 3rd-ranked Utah.

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As I like to say to my Husky friends, every day is a great day to be a Coug, but that proclamation rings especially true on nights like Thursday: The women started the action with a stunning (yet not really surprising) win over No. 3 Utah to advance to the Pac-12 semifinals, then the men raced out to a 19-3 lead in Seattle before more or less cruising to a 93-84 win over Washington.

Both teams are rolling toward their respective postseasons. The women are safely in the NCAA tournament field for the third consecutive year, but they continue to push for a higher seed. The men, meanwhile, guaranteed themselves a non-losing record and perhaps have secured a spot in the NIT after finishing with 11 conference wins.

The win by the women over Utah continues to underscore that this very likely is the best WSU team yet under Kamie Ethridge. With wins over Arizona, UCLA, and now the third-ranked Utes — projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — the Cougs should be in line for a higher seed than the past couple of years. That’s key, of course, because they should have an easier first round opponent and, should they advance, also avoid one of the giants in the second round.

The Cougs’ win over the Utes shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Besides the fact that they’ve shown they can hang with anyone that doesn’t have STANFORD plastered across their chests, they very nearly beat the Utes in Pullman while Charlisse Leger-Walker was away in New Zealand.

Charlisse has been back for a while now, but she hasn’t always looked like herself since returning, particularly as a scorer. Folks, she is now fully — FULLY— back in the swing of things. She had 15 points and 5 assists against the Utes, including this dagger that sealed the game:

She also scored 23 in the tournament opener, leadership that was needed in a tighter-than-expected game against Cal. Leger-Walker is back to doing what she does when she’s at her best: Whatever is needed of her for the team to win.

What’s made this team so good, though — and better than its predecessors — is that it’s no longer just the CLW show. The Cougs can punish you in so many ways from so many spots on the floor. It’s notable that Bella Murekatete is the one who actually led the team in scoring last night, scoring 19 on 14 shots. Meanwhile, Utah’s Alissa Pili — the Pac-12 player of the year — scored just 11 points on her 14 shots. Murekatete grabbed 5 rebounds to Pili’s 3.

Murekatete’s work opened up the floor for others, and it was a 3-point barrage at the end of the 3rd quarter that fueled a 14-0 run that gave the Cougs control of the game with a 12-point lead heading into the fourth. It got just a tiny bit wobbly down the stretch — Utah is good!1 — but WSU never relinquished the lead.

Now the Cougs will take on 3rd-seeded Colorado for the right to play for the Pac-12 title. The game tips off at 8:302 p.m. PT tonight on Pac-12 Network.

Now, before we get to the analysis of the men’s victory, I’d like to just pause for a moment to take a drink … of some extremely delicious tears.

The win is the second over UW in three weeks; it also marks four of the last five against the Huskies and three of the last four in Seattle. Kyle Smith truly owns the Northwest: His teams are now 15-5 in his four seasons against Washington, Oregon, and Oregon State.

And the way they did it last night was such a joy to watch. As Craig and I talked on the podcast about what to expect in the game, my partner said he thought it was likely to be another grind-it-out slog. I disagreed, pointing to the ShotQuality expected points in the first one, where both teams significantly underperformed what you’d expect in terms of making the shots that they took. I figured the teams would get at least the same quality of looks, and very likely make more of them.

As it turned out, I vastly undersold the improvement. There’s simply no way anyone could have forecast the offensive explosion that took place at Hec Ed. In just six more possessions than the first time around, the Cougs scored 37(!!) more points — a whopping 1.39 points per possession. That’s the:

  • Sixth most efficient performance since kenpom.com started tracking this stuff 20 years ago.

  • Second most points per possession this season.

  • Most points per possession the Huskies have allowed under Mike Hopkins in his six seasons.

The biggest reason for that, of course, was the unbelievable performance by TJ Bamba, who has turned himself into WSU’s best pure scoring threat. He scored a career-high 36 points, and his offensive rating was a mind-blowing 170 on 30% usage. Translation: About 18 of WSU’s possessions ended with an action by him, and on those, the Cougs scored about 1.70(!!!!) points3.

His evolution has truly been a sight to behold. I’m not just talking about how he’s changed from his beginnings as a turnover-prone freshman. I’m talking about within this season. He’s improved his ability to finish around the rim and has started displaying an array of shots — including step-back 3s and midrange jumpers — that make him incredibly difficult to defend when deployed as a counter to his explosive athleticism and strength that gets him to the rim. Turnovers can still be a bit of a bugaboo (he had five against Cal), but in general, he’s much more under control as he probes the defense, and the confidence is palpable.

And then, of course, there’s Mouhamed Gueye, about whom we talked at length on this week’s show. (Fast forward to 40:00 for that discussion.)

Gueye was an absolute force without dominating the ball offensively, which is weird to say of a guy who was 7-of-11 from the floor and scored 15. He mostly just let the game come to him, complementing Bamba’s aggression with yet another opportunistic offensive rebounding game (4 on that end, 10 total) and also facilitating (3 assists).

But when the opportunity came to him …

Now, we wait. Four things needed to happen for the Cougs to push up to the No. 5 seed for the Pac-12 tournament, and it’s two down, two to go — coupled with ASU’s loss at UCLA, we now just need the Sun Devils to finish with a loss at USC (70% chance of that, via kenpom) and Utah to finish with a loss at Colorado (62% chance). That’s very doable!

I’ll leave you with this. Give this social media staffer a raise. GFC.

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