The Cougars lost three starters before the midway mark of the season, but somehow, some way, they fought to stay competitive in a murderous Pac-12 field, and this experience will set them up well for the future, says June Daugherty

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Few basketball teams are equipped to survive the loss of four players –including three starters – before the midpoint of a season.

That’s exactly what Washington State had to overcome this year, when junior forward Louise Brown and 2016 Pac-12 All-Freshman first team guard Borislava Hristova sustained season ending foot injuries, only to be followed on the injury list by freshman sensation Chanelle Molina (ACL tear) and freshman backup Cameron Fernandez (head injury).

That disappointment ultimately fueled WSU’s resolve.

The injuries to Fernandez and Molina – who was just named a Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention selection – in mid-January effectively ended a promising three-game Pac-12 win streak that included the biggest upset in WSU program history when the Cougars triumphed 82-73 over No. 7 UCLA.

Thereafter, the Cougars (11-18 overall, 6-12 Pac-12) never managed to string together even two consecutive wins against Pac-12 opponents, yet they won just enough to go into the first round of the Pac-12 conference tournament on Thursday at Key Arena as the No. 7 seed – which matches WSU’s best seeding since the inception of the Pac-12 tournament in 2002.

WSU’s reward is a first-round matchup against No. 10 Colorado, which the Cougars beat 67-56 in Pullman last Saturday in their regular season finale.

The, coupled with the one-and-done mode of postseason play, has reinvigorated a Cougars team that finished the season with nine able-bodied players.

“It’s very tough, but it’s made me a better coach,” said WSU’s June Daugherty, who changed the Cougars’ offensive system three times this season to play to the strengths of her remaining players. “It makes us better. We found out that our kids are really talented, just inexperienced. We’re already a better team.

“I think in the long run, this program will look back on this year and say, ‘Wow it’s so great this team believed in itself. Some special things are about to happen especially because of the experience they received.”

With Hristova, Molina and Brown out, sophomore guard Alexys Swedlund (10.7 points per game) was forced to mature, and she’s risen to the occasion.

“I think early on, she put a lot of pressure on herself to try to carry this team,” Daugherty said. “But once she trusted that there were other people out there, she gotten a lot better. She’s been in and out of the lineup, and has settled in and become a much better defensive player.”

Junior Pinelopi Pavlopoulou and third-year sophomore Krystle McKenzie have also improved as floor leaders at the point guard position, which Daugherty says is “tough to do” mid-season.

True freshman Kayla Washington came to Pullman as a power forward but moved to small forward after Hristova and Brown got hurt. She’s since started seven games and played in all 29, averaging 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in Pac-12 play.

“I’m excited about her future,” Daugherty said. “That kid wants to win, and she’s not afraid of anything. She’s gonna be a really outstanding player for us down the road.”

But it’s not quite time to start looking toward the 2017-18 season yet. The Cougars believe they have a chance to advance to in the Pac-12 tournament if they can improve on the way they played Colorado (15-14, 5-13) last week.

The Cougars and Buffaloes have split the series this year, with Colorado beating WSU 70-58 in Boulder on Feb. 3 on the strength of a big fourth quarter.

The Buffs are relishing the opportunity to play the Cougars again on such a short turnaround.

“Our team, we’re young enough to be excited for a new season, and I think our team is young enough to say, ‘that (last) weekend stunk, let’s move on,’” said Colorado coach J.R. Payne, who is completing her first season with the Buffs. “For a team that really struggled like we did last Saturday afternoon, it’s a positive to be able to say, ‘All right, that was bad, here’s the opportunity to fix a sour taste in your mouth.’”

The Cougars also have things they’d like to fix from their last outing against Colorado.

“We didn’t play exceptionally well the other night, and we definitely have a lot of things to focus on. We have to improve if we want to come away with a victory in the first round,” Daugherty said. “We didn’t feel like we executed well against the zone, we got ourselves into too many turnovers and we had to move the basketball better. Defensively, we allowed way too much transition in that game.

“The last thing for us, every 50/50 loose ball, every ball maybe going out of bounds, I thought Colorado hustled their butts off. We’ve got to win those 50/50 balls.”