Forgotten amidst March Madness fervor, the Cougars did something big Thursday night: they got their first postseason win in school history
The Washington State women’s basketball program has struggled for most of its existence, entering this season with a 498-733 program record, for a .404 winning percentage in its fifth decade of play.
The Cougars have fielded a team since the pre-Title IX era, with the inaugural women’s basketball squad finishing 11-1 overall under coach Dorothea Coleman in the 1970-71 season.
But in the years since, the Cougars haven’t had a lot of success. WSU has only been in the NCAA Tournament once — when it lost to 29th-ranked Northwestern in the first round in 1991 to cap off an 18-11 campaign.
That loss also marked the beginning of a 23-year postseason drought that only ended recently, when June Daugherty led the Cougars to back-to-back WNIT appearances in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.
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Both times, the Cougars lost in the first round, and they went into this season having never won a postseason women’s basketball game.
That dismal record changed Thursday night when the Cougars pulled off a momentous 72-64 road win against BYU in the first round of the WNIT tournament to advance to the round of 32 and notch their first postseason win in school history.
The Cougars are now a humble 1-4 all-time in the postseason.
However, three of those five postseason appearances having come under Daugherty in the last four years.
Could this be the beginning of an upward swing? WSU fielded an extraordinarily young team this year, with 10 underclassmen, and will only lose one player — senior Ivana Kmetovska — to graduation.
“It’s big time for us,” sophomore Alexys Swedlund said in postgame interviews with the Pac-12 Network. “Especially for Ivana. We’re doing everything for her because these are her last games.”
Kmetovska has played in all 32 games for WSU this season, averaging 21.5 minutes and 8.1 points per game. She’s been a steadying force for a young team that’s had to overcome the loss of four players due to season-ending injuries.
“Every game was such a battle,” Daugherty said this week, reflecting back on the season.
Yet, the Cougars (13-19) have continued to fight. In the absence of injured key starters Louise Brown, Borislava Hristova and Chanelle Molina, WSU’s young players have been forced to grow up fast this season, and the experience they’ve gained will serve the Cougars well in years to come.
Junior Caila Hailey, who had eight steals against BYU, continues to be one of the best defensive stalwarts in the Pac-12. Guards Pinelopi Pavlopoulou and Swedlund — who led the Cougars with 19 points against BYU — have learned to command the offense and have played a lot of minutes this year, while freshman forward Kayla Washington has evolved into a versatile role player who can fill in at small forward or power forward, and the frontline has improved significant led by Nike McClure’s emergence as a potent shot blocker.
Combine that with the scoring talents of Hristova, who made the All-Pac-12 team as a freshman last season, the veteran Brown and the creative ways of Molina — who played in only six Pac-12 games but was an honorable mention selection to the Pac-12 all-freshman team — and the 2018 season looks bright for WSU.
Of course, the Cougars are not looking to next year quite yet.
WSU now advances to the second round in a postseason tournament for the first time ever, and its next challenge is a tough road game at Wyoming, where the Cowboys (22-9) just knocked off Seattle University. Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be streamed live online on the Mountain West Network.
“I’m just proud of how resilient our team was,” Daugherty said in her postgame interview with the Pac-12 Network. “Survive and advance. We’ve gone from 64 teams down to 32. Let’s keep going.”