The Cougars lost star players but are off to a 9-2 start thanks in part to freshman Borislava Hristova. The Cougars open Pac-12 play Tuesday, hosting Washington and Kelsey Plum.

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This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Washington State women’s basketball team, which was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll.

It’s too bad the Cougars didn’t get that memo.

WSU wrapped up its nonconference slate 9-2 and sits in sixth place in wins in the Pac-12 as it begins conference play against Washington and Kelsey Plum, the nation’s leading scorer (27.6 ppg), at Beasley Coliseum on Tuesday.

That 9-2 record ties last year’s team for the best start a WSU women’s basketball team has posted since the 1995-96 squad began 12-2.

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The difference however, is that the 2014-15 team was led by standouts Tia Presley and Lia Galdeira, both of whom are now playing pro ball.

This team profiled as one that was looking for answers at the guard spots and breaking in some new players.

But so far, the rebuild is ahead of schedule, and much of that has to do with the development of freshman Borislava Hristova, a 6-foot forward from Bulgaria who ranks fourth nationally in scoring among all freshmen, with an average of 18.4 points.

Hristova, who is known to her teammates as “Bobi,” came to Pullman as the No. 1 rated international collegiate recruit this year. She was named the MVP of the 2014 U-18 European Championship for Bulgaria and also earned MVP honors at the U-16 European Championship in 2011, so WSU coach June Daugherty knew she’d scored a coup when Hristova signed to play college ball in Pullman.

However, until Hristova took the floor this season, Daugherty wasn’t sure how quickly her prized international recruit would adapt to the American game and mesh with her new team.

“I expected her to be confident and talented and skilled, but what I didn’t know was, ‘Is she going to be able to really want to take command of the game and really take over the game?’ ” Daugherty said. “We’ve been in so many close battles. I had to know, ‘Does she want the ball in her hands late in the game with the clock ticking down?’

“I didn’t know if she’d really have that maturity and moxie to say, ‘Hey, coach, put it in my hands, I’m good to go.’ ”

The answer has been a resounding “yes.”

“The game here is faster, more athletic and physical,” Hristova said through an interpreter in an interview earlier this month. “For me, however, the biggest difference is that here, you have to play with heart on the court. No matter if you’re the best player or not, you have to play hard all the time to earn your spot.”

Hristova has let her play do the talking. She was named Pac-12 player of the week at the end of November and has led the Cougars in scoring in 10 of their 11 games. Hristova had a career-high 30 points against San Jose State, and also scored a half-dozen crucial points in the fourth quarter in back-to-back close wins against San Diego and Gonzaga.

“Her teammates really trust her with the ball,” Daugherty said. “You watch her for five minutes and you know she’s a special player. (From) her touch on the ball to her handling, she’s fun to watch. She’s fearless and she plays hard. She’s very hard on herself. She wants to be great and has a lot of room to improve.”

Hristova is the only player on the Cougars’ roster who’s averaging double digits in points per game, but she’s by no means a one-woman show.

A number of different contributors have turned in clutch performances for the Cougars. Sophomore forward Louise Brown was the heroine against Gonzaga, when she sank a three-pointer and made 3 of 4 free throws late in the game to help WSU edge the Bulldogs. On the road at Kansas, it was senior guard Dawnyelle Awa who stepped up, hitting all three three-pointers she attempted to finish with a career-high 19 points and lead WSU to its ninth win.

Even though WSU has started the same five players in every game, “for the first time in nine years, we’re three-deep at every position,” Daugherty said.

That depth has given Daugherty the luxury to experiment with different personnel combinations depending on the opponent.

“We’re looking for matchups and mismatches,” Daugherty said, adding that the team has embraced the varied rotations. “A lot of it is going off knowing your personnel and seeing how people progress.”

An impressive pace
Top scoring freshmen nationally in Division I (as of Dec. 27):
Player School PPG
1. Jessica Kovatch Saint Francis (Pa.) 22.5
2. Kristine Anigwe California 21.4
3. Jessica Shepard Nebraska 19.5
4. Borislava Hristova Washington State 18.2
5. Presley Hudson Central Michigan 17.4

An impressive pace

Top scoring freshmen nationally in Division I (as of Dec. 27):

Player
School
PPG

1. Jessica Kovatch
Saint Francis (Pa.)
22.5

2. Kristine Anigwe
California
21.4

3. Jessica Shepard
Nebraska
19.5

4. Borislava Hristova
Washington State
18.2

5. Presley Hudson
Central Michigan
17.4