A truism in sport: one person’s surprise is often another person’s “me” knew that would happen! “We’re roughly halfway through the women’s 2020-21 college basketball season, and for the most part, all of the teams we expected to be good have lived up to expectations. Our preseason player of the year, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, is still the front runner as the nation’s best despite having competition.
So far, however, there have been a few surprises. Here are five of the biggest.
Washington State is a Pac-12 contender
Washington State was selected last in the Pac-12 by both preseason coaches and media polls. That wasn’t a surprise; The Cougars went 11-20 last season and only won one game after January and were 4-14 in the Pac-12 game. And they graduated from striker Borislava Hristova, who became the program’s most successful goalscorer with 2,269 points last season.
But now they’re 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the league after beating Arizona # 7 on Sunday 71-69. They also have a win against what was then Oregon State on December 19th. The Cougars’ only loss was to Oregon in a December 21 game that went between 69 and 65. Washington State has not yet played Stanford or UCLA, but the Cougars’ performance so far is no accident. What gives?
“You have to be lucky, you have to be resilient,” said Kamie Ethridge, Washington state coach. “You have to recruit great kids who are at that level. And then you have to hope that you get the chemistry that can actually keep up.”
The Cougars have recruited internationally, which means the chemistry has to come from the mix of players from around the world. The search for non-American talent isn’t new in Washington state – Hristova is from Bulgaria, for example – but nine of Washington state’s 13 players this season are from seven different countries outside the US.
The New Zealand Leger Walker sisters – newcomer Charlisse (18.8 PPG) and Redshirt senior Krystal (10.8) – are leading. Her mother Leanne played for New Zealand in the Olympics. Krystal began her college career in northern Colorado, playing for Ethridge, and then moved to Washington State.
When Ethridge joined Cougars in 2018, she hoped to help the program avoid being a prisoner of its past. Much easier said than done.
The only NCAA tournament appearance of the Cougars was in 1991 under coach Harold Rhodes. In the 30 years since then, Washington State has only set winning records three times, and the record closest to a winning conference record is twice at 0.500. Since the program started in 1970, the Cougars have reached the 20-minute mark only once: they went 21-5 in 1978-79 before the NCAA era began. The nadir was 2001-02 when they went 2-27 and 0-18.
The Cougars looked like they were on the verge of breakthrough in 2013-15 under coach June Daugherty when they were 34-32 and 16-20 together in the Pac-12. They went to WNIT both seasons, then again in 2017 when they reached the semifinals.
Still, by the time Ethridge stepped in, the Cougars had had a season of 10-20 and 3-14, and the Pac-12 got tougher, not easier. What Washington State has achieved is one of the most notable stories of this season.
The Cougars have to face Stanford No. 1 twice more. Due to COVID-19 issues affecting the schedule, both games will be played in a row on January 27th and 29th in Pullman, Washington.
But Stanford is 67-0 against Washington State. The teams first played in 1983 and have met annually since 1986. It was as close to an automatic “W” for Stanford as any team could have done in a league game. Of course, Stanford will still be a big favorite, but Washington State made this a much anticipated matchup.
“I love the thought that we might be in the postseason mix,” said Ethridge. “Not just postseason, but an NCAA berth. We’re not getting too far ahead of each other. We know how quickly this could crash, and we know COVID is just around the corner. So we’re going to celebrate this and that.” get back to work immediately. “
Wake Forest is making some noise in the ACC
If you think Washington State is having a long drought in NCAA tournaments, Wake Forest is even longer. The only appearance of the demon deacons was in 1988. Wake has been to the WNIT six times since 2005.
Wake is 6-3 after Sunday’s 68-48 win over Boston College and 3-2 at the ACC. Wake was selected to rank 12th in the ACC in both coach and media polls. At the moment the Deacs are tied for fifth place. (Because COVID-19 affects schedules, there are differences in the number of league games each ACC team has played. For example, seven for Clemson and Miami, but only two for Virginia.)
So far, Wake Forest’s best wins are on November 29th against the state of Missouri and on December 10th against rival North Carolina. The Deacs would have overturned the tar heels twice and lost to them in overtime on December 20.
Trainer Jen Hoover, who led Wake as a player on this ’88 trip to big dance, is in season nine with her alma mater. Last season, the Deacs in the ACC went 16:16 and 7:11, the most conference victories in the Hoover era.
How Wake takes on Notre Dame on Thursday and Virginia Tech on Sunday can say a lot.
Cal is without a win
There weren’t many expectations for Cal this season, who was voted ninth in the Pac-12. But no one thought it was going to get that bad, though the alarm bells definitely rang as the Golden Bears started the season with losses to San Jose State and CSU Bakersfield.
The Bears fell to 0-10 overall and 0-6 in Pac-12 after a 100-41 loss to No. 11 Oregon on Sunday. Injuries and COVID-19 issues have drained Cal’s roster, and the Bears are last in several categories in the league, including points per game (47.1). The closest they got to the win they lost on January 1 against the state of Arizona with a score of 56: 53.
Can Cal make it into the Victory Column this season? The fact that the bears got so close to the Sun Devils should at least give them hope.
Destanni Henderson was committed to South Carolina
Coach Dawn Staley and Gamecock fans had high expectations of what Destanni Henderson, a 5-foot-7 junior guard, could do with more playing time after Tyasha Harris graduated. Henderson had a solid season last year, averaging 8.5 PPG and the SEC all-tournament team.
But nationally, earlier this season, people were more interested in the sophomores Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke in South Carolina and may not have been as aware of how good Henderson was. You know now.
On Sunday, Henderson had 22 points, eight rebounds, and three assists in a big win for No. 5 South Carolina at No. 10 Kentucky. The Gamecocks had a short COVID-19 hiatus and had little preparation time for the Wildcats. At halftime they were between 41 and 35. But led by Henderson and Boston (20 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocked shots), South Carolina rallied 75-70 and is now 8-1 overall and 3-0 in the SEC.
Henderson is one of the fastest guards in the country, but part of their success has been knowing when to slow down.
“To have that much speed in a player, sometimes you get into trouble and try to play too fast,” said Staley. “In that game, she found where she was going to have the greatest impact and that was in the color.”
Henderson has started every game this season and leads the Gamecocks in minutes played (32.4 MPG) and assists (5.2 APG) while averaging 13.2 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Duke is the only Power 5 program (so far) to cancel its season
We knew COVID-19 was going to have a huge impact on this season and it messed up planning. One of the most anticipated games of the season – UConn v Baylor, scheduled for last Thursday – was canceled when Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey tested positive. Two top 10 teams, NC State and Baylor, are currently on hiatus.
Another high-powered matchup, UConn v Louisville, was postponed earlier in the season when the Huskies took a break, and the teams have since tried to reschedule. Louisville was also on hiatus earlier this season.
Stanford is number 1 and unbeaten despite having been on the road since early December as Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 regulations prevent the cardinal from playing / practicing at home. They have only played one of their 10 games at the Maples Pavilion this season: the first one against Cal Poly on November 25th.
Despite all of this, only one Power 5 conference program for men or women has canceled its season so far: Duke’s women, who did so on December 25th after four games. When will someone in the Duke’s sports department speak publicly about the decision? And will there be other Power 5 programs before the season ends?
Player of the Week: Naz Hillmon, Michigan
The Wolverines remain undefeated 9-0 and 4-0 in the Big Ten, and the 6-2 junior is a big reason for that. She had 35 points and 22 rebounds in a 64-62 win over Nebraska on Thursday and 24 and 13 in a win over Illinois 70-50 on Sunday. For the season it averages 25.7 points and 11.6 rebounds.
Shout-outs also go to Henderson of South Carolina (combined 42 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists in wins over Alabama and Kentucky) and Jessika Carter of Mississippi State (combined 44 points and 25 rebounds in wins over Florida and Ole Miss).
Team of the Week: Texas A & M.
The Aggies continued to roll 12-0 and 3-0 SEC, but they had their closest call on Sunday in Arkansas and won 74-73 in Jordan Nixon’s race to catch up by a second. Aaliyah Wilson had 27 points and eight rebounds while N’dea Jones had 12 and 14.
On Thursday, the Aggies beat another team in Kentucky with 77-60, with Nixon taking the lead with 19 points.
The depth of the aggies is impressive; They have four players averaging double digits, led by Wilson at 15.0 PPG, and two more averaging over 9.0 PPG.
Texas A&M will face Mississippi State # 14 next Sunday (noon, ESPN2), but then the Aggies won’t face another team until February 14th when they have a rematch with Arkansas. And what turns out to be the biggest game of the SEC season – the Aggies versus the Gamecocks – is the regular season finale on February 28 at Texas A&M.
Trainer of the week: The Magarities
It was a great story in a week that took a week. At what was probably the first meeting of father and daughter as head coach in Division I basketball, Dave Magarity of Army and Maureen Magarity of Holy Cross faced each other twice. Maureen’s Crusaders won both, defeating the Black Knights 80-46 on Saturday at Army and 61-42 on Sunday at Holy Cross.
Dave will get a chance to equalize his record against his daughter next month when the teams meet on February 6-7. Despite the losses, he enjoyed this opportunity.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Dave. “The trip Maureen and I had together was really something special.”
Win of the Week: Washington State
The Cougars were 16 points behind Arizona, in the third quarter on Sunday it was just under four minutes. But they resisted and kept the wildcats at seven points in the fourth quarter. Washington State put the game into overtime when Charlisse Leger-Walker was supported by her sister Krystal two seconds before the end.
Then Charlisse got another layup on the overtime buzzer for victory. Together, the sisters scored eight of Washington State’s eleven points in OT. They finished with a total of 31 points, seven assists and 14 ricochets.
Ethridge was aware of how adept a goalscorer Charlisse was as he watched her international match, but the coach was surprised at the newcomer’s defense.
“Even though I knew how good she was, I didn’t know she was that good,” Ethridge said. “She can guard small guards, she can guard 6-2 posts.”