I reminded Kamie Ethridge, Washington State’s miracle-working women’s basketball coach, of her quote shortly after being hired to run one of the least successful Power Five programs in the country.
“I don’t have any doubts we can be successful here,” Ethridge had said back in 2018, presumably mindful of the gory details of Cougar hoops ineptitude — such as just two winning seasons in the previous 22 years.
Looking back, Ethridge exclaimed in mock horror, “Did I really say that?”
She did, indeed — and looks downright prescient right about now. Ethridge has guided the Cougars to just the second NCAA women’s tournament berth in school history, and the first in 30 years. They will open play Sunday night against South Florida.
It’s one of the most remarkable reclamation jobs in the country, and yet it wasn’t seamless. The Cougars were 9-21 in Ethridge’s first season and improved only slightly to 11-20 last season. They were a combined 8-28 in Pac-12 play, pretty much the antithesis of success.
“For two years we got our brains beat in,” Ethridge said, explaining why she winced at her three-year-old bravado.
This season WSU was picked to finish dead last in the Pac-12, a quite common landing spot for the Cougars over the past three decades. But something magical happened instead.
In a season disrupted by COVID-19, and made more difficult for WSU by the midseason departure of a key bench player, the Cougars began toppling giants in the rugged Pac-12. Down went No. 21 Oregon State. Down went No. 7 Arizona (earning the Cougars the first Associated Press Top 25 ranking in program history). Down went No. 5 UCLA, another program milestone — first victory over a top-five team. They barely lost to Oregon, which was riding a 27-game winning streak.
The physically and mentally drained Cougars dropped four in a row down the stretch to put themselves on the NCAA bubble. They didn’t quite end a streak of 30 years without a winning conference record, finishing 9-10 in the Pac-12. Their overall mark of 12-11 is hardly imposing.
But the Cougars, who had a smattering of success they couldn’t sustain under Ethridge’s predecessor, former Washington coach June Daugherty, were no longer a Pac-12 pushover. They ultimately justified Ethridge’s faith in their eventual turnaround — a year ahead of schedule, in her mind. She said her initial confidence was fueled by assurances from athletic director Pat Chun and university president Kirk Schulz that they’d provide her all the resources needed to succeed.
“They gave me a six-year contract and said, ‘Build this thing, because that’s what you do best.’ When you have the right support, you have to jump on those jobs,” Ethridge said in a phone interview.
“I knew we couldn’t do it right away. Our roster wasn’t built right. We had to recruit, we had to get our culture right, build it the right way with a rock-solid foundation. And in Year Three, our culture is pretty close.”
And the Washington State roster is teeming with dynamic players who have come to Pullman from around the globe. That’s no exaggeration, either. WSU has players from New Zealand (more on that in a moment), Australia, Turkey, Israel, Estonia, Canada and Rwanda. Oh, and Seattle and Nebraska.
Ethridge says the global outreach was necessary because the WSU program was held in such low esteem on the West Coast.
“When we took this job, we made lots of calls to club coaches in California and Washington and all over the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “And a number of them told us they hadn’t heard from a Washington State coach in years. And so there weren’t a lot of relationships. We didn’t have their trust. So they weren’t offering up the kids that are going to UCLA, Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State. They were offering us the kids that were going to go mid-majors.
“We weren’t going to win games with the last five on the bench of really good California club teams. So the choice was find a lesser athlete and a lesser player from America, or go get some of the best players across the world.”
The key to Washington State’s revival was luring a pair of sisters from Waikato, New Zealand — Krystal and Charlisse Leger-Walker. Getting Krystal was the easier part. She had played for Ethridge in her previous stop as coach at Northern Colorado, and eventually transferred to join Ethridge at Washington State.
Younger sister Charlisse, a budding superstar in her homeland, was a tougher sell. Virtually every school in the U.S. was after her, and when Leger-Walker finally made her decision, she decided to have some fun with the coaching staff. Via a Zoom call, she began in a downcast fashion, telling the assembled WSU staff, “I’m sorry to tell you … ”
With the coaches now braced for the worst, Charlisse broke into a smile and said, “ … that you’re going to have to put up with two Leger-Walkers now.”
Says Ethridge, “It was brutal, just brutal. Our hearts were in our throat. But it shows you a little bit of her sense of humor. She was serious the whole time we were recruiting her. She asked deep questions, not fluff. She wants a well-rounded education, and she wanted to trust and believe in the place she was going.”
Leger-Walker has been a revelation, averaging 18.9 points (second best in the conference) and 5.3 rebounds per game while earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors.
“From the moment she probably came into this world, Charlisse could play anywhere in the country,” Ethridge said. “She really is that good. She’s every bit of a dynamic person and player and leader, and just has an ability to dominate the game in every phase. I mean, offensively, she’s awesome. And defensively, she’s awesome. So it is a game changer for Washington State.”
Ethridge calls Krystal (10 points, 4.3 rebounds and a team-high 106 assists) the Cougars’ glue.
“It was a game-changer to get one of them,” Ethridge said of the sisters. “When you get two of them at the same time it’s a program-changer.”
Ethridge, 56, would love to continue the process of elevating Washington State’s profile in the same tournament she won a national title as the star point guard of undefeated Texas in 1986 (she earned an Olympic gold medal two years later).
If the Cougars get by South Florida, No. 1 seed North Carolina State likely looms in the second round. But when you play in a Pac-12 Conference loaded with nationally ranked teams, you’re not afraid of challenges.
Particularly when you’ve conquered the biggest one of all: Making your previously dormant — and doormat — program relevant.