LOS ANGELES – No championship banners were unfurled. No champagne bottles were uncorked. No NCAA tournament plans were made. Ah, but do not underestimate the importance of what the Washington State women’s basketball team accomplished Wednesday night. The Cougars upset Oregon State, 65-56, to record the first conference tournament victory in school history.
“Ever!” shouted a delighted June Daugherty, the Washington State coach. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Indeed, the Cougars were 0-10 in the 10-year history of the Pacific-10 Conference women’s tournament. No other team won less than four games.
The Cougars finally broke through in the first year of the Pac-12. They did so as a No. 11 seed knocking off a No. 6 seed. They did so by outplaying and outworking a supposedly superior team.
“This is a big deal for our seniors,” sophomore wing Brandi Thomas said. “They’ve been working their tails off for four years. Now it’s finally paying off.”
-- Thomas shines: The Cougars (12-19) entered the game dead last in the Pac-12 with a dismal 36.5 field-goal shooting percentage. They only shot 38.3 percent Wednesday, but Thomas sank her first four shots – all jumpers from outside, including a 3-pointer – to spur WSU’s 17-2 run to start the game.
“Brandi has been stepping up so big,” senior guard April Cook said.
“She played like a senior,” senior forward-guard Jazmine Perkins said.
Thomas moved into the starting lineup after Ireti Amojo suffered a season-ending knee injury in WSU’s Pac-12 opener Dec. 29 at Oregon. The Cougars still managed to start 3-0 in conference play, but they finished 5-13 in the Pac-12 and had lost eight of nine games before Wednesday.
Thomas, who starred at Elma High School, was averaging just 5.1 points per game before she scored 17 for the second straight game Wednesday. She also had 17 (one off her career high) in last Saturday’s 65-54 home loss to USC, the Cougars’ opponent Thursday night at 7:15 in the quarterfinals at USC’s Galen Center.
“She (has) spent a heck of a lot of time in our brand-new, state-of-the-art practice facility on the shooting machine,” Daugherty said. “She started to wear it out.”
Daugherty can only hope Thomas wears out the third-seeded Trojans. USC (18-11) is seeded third and has won both games with WSU this season.
-- Poise displayed: The Beavers (18-12) narrowed WSU’s lead to 32-27 at intermission and 45-44 midway through the second half before the Cougars calmly regained control of the game.
“We had to make it exciting,” Cook joked.
Cook, playing with two bad discs in his back, came off the bench to score nine points in 12 minutes.
“April has probably practiced, honestly, 10 minutes all week because of her lower-back injury,” Daugherty said. “We don’t know until game time after warm-ups if she can go.
“It’s amazing to me that she fights and gives us every ounce she can give us.”
-- Perky Perkins: Perkins is another player known for giving max effort. She scored just six points – dropping her season average to 8.6, which (blush) leads the Cougars if Amojo’s 9.0 average in 13 games is excluded – but she also had 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and plenty of hustle plays in 36 minutes on the floor.
“She showed great leadership,” Daugherty said.
-- Injury woes: Injuries to Amojo, Cook and starting point guard Tia Presley (out for the year with a foot ailment) slowed the Cougars after a 9-6 start against a challenging group of opponents.
“To the kids’ credit, they kept believing, kept playing hard,” Daugherty said. “I think our seniors (including Rosie Tarnowski and Rosie Adzasu) were phenomenal leaders.”
-- Coaches praised: Daugherty, in her fifth year at the helm after running highly successful programs at Boise State and Washington, is still trying to end WSU’s 16-year string of losing seasons.
This year’s 12 wins are the most since the 1997-98 team won 12. Winning a 13th won’t be easy against third-seeded USC (18-11). The Trojans are 2-0 against WSU this season.
Perkins and Cook said Daugherty and husband Mike, an assistant coach, are working diligently to turn around the program.
“It’s her optimism; that’s how we keep it going,” Cook said.
“When she speaks her words, they’re real. Period,” Perkins said.