Pinelopi Pavlopoulou got a call with with the news her grandfather had died after the Cougars were eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament. Now she's leading them through the postseason.
The Sunday after the Cougars’ second round exit from the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament, Washington State junior Pinelopi Pavlopoulou was chatting with her parents via FaceTime when they broke some bad news.
All the way from Athens, Greece, Pavlopoulou’s parents told her gently that her paternal grandfather, Vasilis Pavlopoulos, had died unexpectedly.
“It was sudden. I didn’t know it was coming,” Pavlopoulou said this week, tearing up as she remembered her grandpa. “I was expecting to go home and see him again.”
Pavlopoulou and her grandfather were close. Growing up in Athens, her grandparents lived 15 minutes away from her family’s home, and she usually visited with them three or four times a week.
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“That’s part of the culture in Greece,” Pavlopoulou said. “We grow up with our grandparents.”
But even though WSU women’s basketball coach June Daugherty offered to let Pavlopoulou go home to mourn with her family, she opted to stay with her team to take on WNIT play.
“I didn’t want to leave the team at this point. I’m one of the captains. I never thought of going home and abandoning the team,” Pavlopoulou said. “I know that grandpa would want me to stay here and play the best games of my life to honor him.”
She’s been true to her word so far.
As the Cougars welcome UC Davis (25-7) to Beasley Coliseum for their Sweet Sixteen WNIT matchup Thursday night, Pavlopoulou is coming off a breakout game against Wyoming in which she scored a career-high 20 points in the Cougars’ overtime win.
Her go-to midrange jumper was integral in helping WSU defeat the Cowgirls, and Pavlopoulou went 9-of-17 from the field – a career high. Her clutch bucket with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter sent the game into overtime.
That win over Wyoming was big, Daugherty says, and it could signal the beginning of a new chapter for her program.
“No matter what happens on Thursday, the program changed that night, on that floor,” Daugherty said.
The odds were stacked against WSU in Laramie, Wyo.: Playing their second road game in three days, in a hostile environment at a site that’s notoriously difficult to get to, with a short bench and starters mired in foul trouble deep into overtime, the Cougars somehow gutted it out and came up with the win.
“Walking to the tunnel to the locker room (after the win), that locker room was different than it has ever been at Washington State. They’d played their hearts out for each other,” Daugherty said. “There was a different vibe and different look in their eyes in how confident they were as a team and how much they’ve grown together. That was a program changer for me in my 10 years at Washington State.”
Over the last week, these Cougars (14-19) have earned their first two postseason wins in school history and advanced to the WNIT Sweet Sixteen for the first time ever.
Pavlopoulou has played a huge part in that success, and in a season that has forced WSU to overcome adversity time and time again, her decision to stay with her team through the postseason instead of going home to Greece after her grandfather’s death once again embodied that familial spirit Daugherty says has helped the Cougars thrive in spite of all they’ve faced.
The 5-foot-8 junior was elevated to the starting point guard position in January after injuries to three starters threatened to derail WSU’s season.
It took her a few games to get comfortable in her new role, but ever since the Cougars hit the postseason, Pavlopoulou has found her rhythm.
She’s scored in double digits in four of WSU’s last five games, and has assumed a leadership role for the Cougars both on and off the floor.
“I think she realizes how much the team counts on her and believes in her. Not just in her floor leadership, but in her scoring,” Daugherty said. “Pinelopi has always been a leader by example.”
Pavlopoulou’s diligence is legendary within the program.
“Every scout we’ve put together in the 33 games, she’s read and re-read, highlighted it, or come up with questions. There’s times on the floor where she’s calling out special sets that are in the (scouting report) that a lot of players, that late in the game, don’t have the wherewithal to pull out,” Daugherty said. “She’s always at practice early, always the last to leave the gym. We’re like, ‘Hey P, don’t forget to turn out the lights.’”
In the days between her grandfather’s death and the beginning of WSU’s WNIT run, Pavlopoulou spent even more time than usual in the gym by herself, shooting.
It was often tough to focus on basketball, she said. And for a while, she didn’t even tell her teammates about her grandfather’s passing because she didn’t want to risk creating any distractions that might detract from their focus.
“There were times in the first couple of days that I would almost break down during practice. But I was trying to keep it together because I didn’t want my teammates to know,” Pavlopoulou said. “A lot of them are young, and they don’t need to bear this for me.”
Instead, she took solace from conversations with the WSU coaches, whom she continues to lean on.
“Talking to the coaches gave me a lot of comfort,” Pavlopoulou said. “Coach Rod (Jensen) gave me advice. He said to use basketball as an outlet. That’s what I tried to do, especially over spring break, with more free time, I would just come in the gym and shoot.”
Perhaps that extra shooting practice paid off against Wyoming. Or perhaps, Pavlopoulou is playing with a little extra fire and a bit more bounce in her step because she knows that every extra game the Cougars win gives her another chance to honor her grandfather’s memory.
“I know she’s playing a lot for him and her family right now,” Daugherty said. “Hopefully she’s playing for us and the people back home in Athens, Greece.”
Either way, it’s late March, and the Cougars are still alive in postseason play. That, in itself, is an important first for a program that went into this year with an 0-4 all-time postseason record.
“We’re so proud of this team and everything they’ve gone through,” Daugherty said. They’ve weathered so many storms this year, and they just keep getting better and better. … I think people realize that we’ve turned the corner in this basketball program.”