NCAA Tournament: How Washington State embraced its tight-knit team and a Shania Twain song in a surprising March run

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Five years ago, Washington State went 9–21 in head coach Kami Etheridge’s first season.

Now, her Cougars boast a 23-10 record, won the school’s first Pac-12 championship in any women’s sport, and earned the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This Cougars squad has cemented its place in WSU history. With such a tight-knit, fun-loving and history-making group on his hands, Ethridge told Yahoo Sports that a big goal this season is finding the right balance between reveling in the moment and being serious about basketball. Is getting To date, they have been successful. The mission continues through March.

“We’re trying to do exactly the same [we’ve done throughout the season] As we’ve been focused on,” Etheridge told Yahoo Sports. “To put it in perspective and have a great balance of, ‘This is the most exciting time of our lives.’ But when we get ready to prepare for games, and when we get ready for practice, we’re really locked in, and we’re all in there. And nothing’s going to get in the way of that.

[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Women’s | Men’s]

A deeper look at Washington State’s personnel makes this season more storybook-like. The Cougars’ roster is composed entirely of three-star recruits and lower-level recruits. During Etheridge’s five seasons, she has brought in a wealth of international players. The Cougars’ starting lineup against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game included athletes from Canada (Tara Wallach), Estonia (Johanna Tedder), Rwanda (Bela Murekatete), Australia (Ula Motuga) and New Zealand (Charlize Lager-Walker).

“We’re all a bunch of kids who committed to WSU based on our love for the sport and our love for the program,” Motuga told Yahoo Sports. “And think that’s what ultimately drives us to have so much success. The fact that we all love each other, and we work hard for each other, and obviously, we work hard for our coaches. And I think that’s something you don’t always see in other conferences and other teams.

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Washington State head coach Kami Etheridge, center left, Ula Motuga, center right and the team celebrate after winning the Pac-12 tournament title on March 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Baker)

Pullman, Washington – Population 32,827 – Since returning – following their Pac-12 tournament championship victory – the Cougars have felt the warm embrace of their quaint, but soulful, college town. The first time WSU players stepped back into their athletic dining hall, they were greeted with thunderous applause from their fellow student-athletes. Compared to the support women’s basketball received five years ago when Motuga first started at Washington State, it’s a big step in the right direction.

“It was really any time [the] The football team won was a good year for WSU,” Motuga recalled. This year, when the women’s hoops team hosted Stanford last month, the football team filled an entire section of the stands.

think as time goes on, we’ve seen women’s basketball get more attention and success,” she said. “And I think the cool thing is, because we’re such a small town, everyone actually started buying into each other more.”

It went viral three days before WSU earned its first conference tournament title. The Pac-12 broadcast caught the team celebrating their loss to No. 2 seeded Utah in the quarterfinals with a jam session to Grammy Award winner Shania Twain’s 1997 hit. “Man! I feel like a woman!”

During the tournament, the No. 7 seeded Cougars posted consecutive wins over Cal, Utah, Colorado, and UCLA, attracting Twain’s attention from overseas. The Canadian singer-songwriter tweeted her support for WSU while promoting her new album, “Queen of Me” in Switzerland.

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The song’s opening line, “Let’s go, girls,” has served as a key motif throughout the Cougars’ phenomenal season.

In the Cougars’ final regular season game on February 23, Washington State exchanged the lead with UCLA three times, with five ties in between. At one point in the second half, Twain’s song was played over UCLA’s PA system. The WSU huddle sang and danced along.

“They have no idea it’s our song,” Etheridge said, recalling the team’s reaction at that moment. “We’re going to win this game.”

And they did, 62–55, after losing to the Bruins a month earlier.

Etheridge said that each singalong takes the song more deeply into WSU’s identity.

But how did it start?

It’s hard to miss Motuga of the Pac-12 tournament. It is therefore difficult to determine the exact time when Twain’s song became the team’s anthem. It certainly was during non-conference play. Motuga is estimated in mid to late December.

Singalongs are a favorite pastime of this Washington State team. At least one lyrical performance from each player is mandatory on long road trips. otherwise singing is a more informal practice. A song in the locker room before or after a workout. A tune to occupy their spare time. Instrumental optional, a cappella accepted.

“Man! feel like a woman!” One of Motuga’s top three karaoke selections (some of Luke Combs or Beyoncé would be the other two, though the exact lineup changes depending on her mood). He decided to play it in the locker room before the game. The opening line, like a call to action, got the team excited.

“let’s go girls!”

WSU won that matchup and the tradition was born.

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Motuga made the song WSU’s own, repeating the opening line in the locker room during pregame. Etheridge called it the idiom of the season.

“‘Let’s go, it’s time to work,'” she said. “Come on girls, let’s have fun outside on the court.” That kind of encapsulates everything about what we’re doing. ‘Let’s go, it’s time to work.’ ‘Come on girls, let’s have some fun outside on the court.’ The camaraderie our team is feeling, the encouragement, the momentum we’re gaining.

The Cougars dropped just 10 this season against the eighth toughest schedule in Division women’s basketball. Four of those losses coincided with the absence of Lager-Walker, who led Washington State in scoring with 18.1 points per game (which ranks third in the Pac-12) and 4.2 assists per game (good for second in the conference). We do. She was named to the All-Pac-12 team and was one of 30 women on the Naismith Player of the Year midseason watchlist.

His return proved vital, especially leading to WSU’s conference tournament run. He was awarded Most Outstanding Player after scoring a record 76 points in the Cougars’ four-game journey toward the Pac-12 title. Twenty-three came against UCLA on 7-for-11 shooting and five 3s in the championship.

The Cougars will face Florida Gulf Coast in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament (2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN). They share a region in Greenville 2 with No. 1 seed Indiana, No. 2 seed Utah, No. 3 seed LSU, and No. 4 seed Villanova. ,