For the first time, Cougars break into 45-year-old AP poll

Washington State guard Krystal Leger-Walker (4) hoists her sister, guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, as WSU celebrates Charlisse’s game-winning buzzer-beater against No. 7 Arizona in overtime Sunday at Beasley Coliseum.

If you trust the polls, Washington State’s women’s basketball team is in the midst of its best season in the program’s half-century of history.

The Associated Press released its top 25 rankings Monday, and the Cougs found themselves included, sneaking in at No. 25. It’s the only time WSU has appeared in the poll since AP began the tradition in 1976.

The Cougars were the last out of all Power Five teams to crack the rankings. They have never been in the national conversation like they are now. WSU’s most recent (and only) NCAA Tournament appearance came in 1991. But more than one hoops analyst has predicted this squad snaps that streak too.

On Sunday, the Cougars (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12) moved to second place in a powerhouse conference they were predicted by most everyone to finish last in. WSU came back from 16 points down against No. 7 Arizona, and had its star true freshman shine again — twice when it counted most.

Charlisse Leger-Walker, a New Zealand National Team player, flipped in a reverse layin to tie the game with three seconds to go in regulation, then took her defender to the hoop, squeezed through traffic and rolled in the game-winner at the overtime buzzer.

She heated up after a cold start, scoring 12 of her 17 points in the final two periods. WSU’s breakout defense meanwhile held the Wildcats under 30 percent shooting after the half and to seven points in the fourth.

The Cougs gradually willed themselves back in, getting big contributions from senior Krystal Leger-Walker (14 points, nine assists) — Charlisse’s standout sister — and center Bella Murekatete (14 points, seven rebounds).

“I don’t think we’re a one-hit wonder,” coach Kamie Ethridge said after the game. “I really think we can duplicate it night in and night out, that kind of effort and competitiveness. And we’re young. We have a chance to get even better as the year goes on.

“It’s a statement. I love that, but I know this team is not satisfied with where we are.”

The headliner has been Charlisse Leger-Walker, who on Monday was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week for the fourth time in the past five weeks. She shares the league lead in scoring (18.8 points per game) and leads it outright in steals (3.3). She has thus far affirmed herself as the conference’s top rookie, and now the national recognition is starting to come.

Krystal Leger-Walker was named Pac-12 Player of the Week by College Sports Madness for her performance, during which the point guard committed only one turnover.

The Cougs own two victories over ranked teams for the first time in six years, and their only loss came to a top-10 Oregon team on Dec. 21, when Wazzu missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with a few seconds left. In Year 3 of the Ethridge era, they’re trending toward posting their only winning Pac-12 season record in three decades.

WSU, riding a four-game tear, travels to Los Angeles this weekend to meet USC, then No. 8 UCLA.

“I’m extremely happy for this team, I was not aware that WSU had never in its history been ranked,” Ethridge said, quoted in a release. “It’s truly a great accomplishment for this program. This summer I pointed out that there are no banners hanging in our gym and I shared that we could be a team that accomplishes a lot of firsts. We’re doing it now, and we are enjoying the process every day. We realize, however, that it’s fleeting if we don’t stay focused on today and the next great challenge before us.”

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