“We’re pretty excited about our opportunities to finish a little bit higher than No. 10,” Daugherty said dryly as she talked with reporters about her team.
“We have a whole new energy level this year,” senior center Carly Noyes said.
Daugherty, forever the poster child for optimism, is no different heading into her sixth season at Washington State. The Cougars return the core of last year’s team, which overcame key injuries to post the program’s first-ever conference tournament wins after yet another disappointing regular season.
“We’ve had our best off-season we’ve ever had,” Daugherty said. “It was such a confidence builder to win (two games at the conference tournament) and be one game from the finals of the Pac-12 tournament.
“They came back, they’ve definitely got more skills. They worked really hard on strength and conditioning.
“We’ve had a great off-season,” she stressed, “and now you come back and you have that experience, that motivation, and you add six players that are obviously very, very talented.”
One of WSU’s six freshmen, Lia Galdeira, started in the Cougars’ exhibition opener Tuesday. The 5-foot-11 wing from Hawaii led the Cougars with 12 points and five steals in a 67-52 win over Simon Fraser, a respected NCAA Division II team from Burnaby, British Columbia, outside Vancouver.
“I kid you not, this freshman class is as good as any in the country,” Daugherty said. (For a complete rundown on all the freshmen, see story linked at bottom of this page.)
Noyes, the only senior besides reserve wing Katie Grad, led the Cougars a year ago with 26 blocked shots and 48.0 percent shooting from the field. The 6-5 center from Moses Lake made honorable mention on the all-conference defensive team, but she averaged just 3.0 rebounds and 7.0 points and hit only 38.7 percent of her free throws.
Two key players, sophomore point guard Tia Presley and junior guard-forward Ireti Amojo, return after injuries cut short their 2012-13 season. Amojo’s 9.0 scoring average stood up all season as WSU’s best.
Amojo is still working her way back into shape after suffering her second major knee injury. The Cougars could use Amojo’s help, since the German import (who played a year with Grad at Auburn-Riverside High School as an exchange student) is a quality shooter on a team that traditionally struggles to sink baskets.
“I believe she’s the best jump shooter in the Pac-12, bar none,” Daugherty said.
Junior forward Sage Romberg (7.3 points, 3.7 rebounds) has shown flashes of brilliance. Wing Brandi Thomas (5.6, 3.1) produced some big games down the stretch last season. Junior forward-center Hana Potter (2.8, 1.5) is “a new and improved woman,” according to Daugherty.
The Cougars love to run, press and trap, which led to 33 Simon Fraser turnovers. However, WSU was outrebounded by 20 and shot just 54.5 percent from the free-throw line Tuesday, and that won’t cut it in the highly competitive Pac-12.
The Cougars won more games last season than in any year since their last winning season (17-12 in 1995-96), but they finished 13-20 and came in 11th in the Pac-12 at 5-13. This, mind you, after Daugherty predicted the Cougars might make a run at Stanford for the league championship.
The Cardinal is still loaded – ranked fourth in the country and the overwhelming favorite to win a 13th straight conference title in the regular season – and the Cougars are still trying to get over the hump. That’s true on the floor and at the turnstiles, since WSU’s average home attendance of 1,056 ranked 11th in the Pac-12 last season.
“Winning always brings people into the stands,” Daugherty said.
“I’m proud of the fact we’ve continued to build the attendance down here. We have a lot of weapons, and they’re a lot of fun to watch.
“I think if we continue to play with a high level of energy and enthusiasm, you’re crazy not to come to Beasley (Coliseum) and watch us play.”
The Cougars offer free admission for the exhibition game against Division II Western Oregon of Monmouth on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Beasley. The season opener comes up Nov. 10 at Minnesota. The home opener is set for 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16 against Monmouth, a small Division I school in Monmouth, Ill.
All women’s games will again be broadcast on Pullman radio stations KQQQ 1150 AM or KHTR 104.3, and online at www.wsucougars.com for a fee.