AUSTIN, Texas — It had to end like this, with the Washington State women taking another ranked team to the limit in anything-can-happen finish.
However, it was the Cougs who finally hit the wall Sunday night, allowing South Florida to escape with a 57-53 win in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Cougars already had made history this year, reaching the tournament for the first time in 31 year. But for a few missteps at the end, they might have made more.
Picked to finish last in the Pac-12, the Cougs were already one of the nation’s surprise stories.
“But when you get going and win some games, you get greedy,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “I’m just really proud when you realize what this team has done.”
Instead it will be the 19th-ranked Bulls (21-6) who advance to a second-round match Tuesday with top-seed North Carolina State.
The finish was as dramatic as it gets, even by the standards of this crazy WSU season.
“In every sense of the word we gave ourselves a chance to win tonight,” Ethridge said.
Down five points with three minutes left, the Cougars seized the momentum in dramatic fashion. WSU guard Johanna Teder stole the ball to set up her own fastbreak three-point shot.
A minute later, Charlisse Leger-Walker drained a three after a nice pass from Bella Muraketete.
Unfazed, USF retook the lead on a driving layin by guard Elena Tsineke with 1:32 to play. Seconds later, poised to drive left, Leger-Walker traveled.
As the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year stared upward in frustration, USF tried to close out the game. Her sister Krystal forced a turnover to give the Cougs another chance.
Charlisse, who played the entire game, turned it over on the next possession, and in the final seconds committed another turnover.
“We were kind of empty at the end,” said Ethridge, who got only 14 minutes from her bench.
Down 56-53, WSU had one more chance to tie in the final seconds, but Charlisse chose to drive into traffic and missed the layin.
“Super disappointed in my role at the end,” said Charlisse, who finished with a team-high 18 points. “But I don’t think you can say we’re a team that gives up.”
Trailing by nine points at halftime, the Cougs (12-12) got back in the game in the third quarter.
Both teams lived up to their defensive reputations in the first quarter.
The Cougars went up 6-0 in the first minute on three-pointers from Johanna Teder and Krystal Leger-Walker, but missed their next five shots.
Midway through the first quarter, WSU led 9-6 but it probably should have been more, as WSU missed 8 of its first 10 shots.
USF took its first lead, 18-17, on a three-pointer from leading scorer Elena Tsineke. WSU answered at the other end, but the Bulls responded with a 9-0 run in less than two minutes.
Suddenly trailing 27-19, Ethridge called timeout.
Trailing 15-13 after the first quarter, Tsineke and USF answered emphatically. The 5-foot-6 guard from Greece, hit 5-of-6 shots in the second period and finished with 18 points.
The Bulls made 11 of 16 shots in the second quarter to take a 38-29 halftime lead.
However, the Cougs dominated the third quarter, which ended 45-all.
For the game, WSU shot better from three-point range (32%) than it did inside the arc (31%). The Cougs held their own on the boards, but were outscored 28-12 in the paint.
Teder had one of her best games of the season: 6-for-11 from the field for 16 points. She also had six boards.