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Washington State women look to climb in Pac-12; Idaho, Eastern Washington battle in Big Sky

Kamie Ethridge isn’t sure what to expect in her first season as women’s basketball coach at Washington State.

“Probably some black eyes and bruises,” Ethridge said with a laugh after a recent practice.

That may happen – the Cougars face tough schedules in nonconference play and the Pac-12 – but so far there are nothing but smiles.

“I’m excited about the new staff – they’re amazing,” point guard Chanelle Molina said. “And the system is more free-flowing and allows us to just be basketball players.”

Ethridge, a Hall of Fame player who won a national title at Texas in 1986 and a gold medal in the Seoul Olympics two years later, said she’s excited at the prospect “to build your own culture and get it going the way you want.”

After several stints as an assistant, Ethridge did just that at Northern Colorado. Last season’s Bears team was among the best in Big Sky Conference history, winning the regular season and tournament titles and landing a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament after knocking off several top programs.

She’s optimistic about doing the same at WSU, though she said that “I get it when everybody says it takes four years to really see the fruits.”

Certainly, the expectations will be modest for a program that finished 3-14 in the Pac-12 and 10-20 overall in the final season of the June Daugherty era.

The Cougars haven’t posted a winning record in conference play since the 1991-92 season.

However, WSU returns three starters, several key reserves and just two seniors, giving Ethridge a chance of success in her four-year plan.

The key may be Molina, the first five-star recruit in WSU history when she signed in 2016. Sidelined by a season-ending knee injury as a freshman, she bounced back last season, appearing in all 30 games, starting 18 of them while averaging 7.7 points and 2.9 assists per game.

“Right now I’m just learning to be a better leader, encouraging my teammates,” Molina said. “And when I criticize them, they know they can trust me.”

The big question is how much Molina can spread the wealth and ease the scoring load for junior forward Borislava Hristova, whose 17.8 scoring average last season was nearly eight points more than any other Cougar.

Last season, the versatile Hristova shot 44.6 percent from the field, 32.4 percent from three-point range and averaged four rebounds.

Guard Alexys Swedlund, one of two seniors, knows what it’s like to win after leading the injury-plagued Cougs to the WNIT semifinals in 2017.

Also back for her senior year is 6-foot-4 post Maria Kostourkova, who averaged 5.5 points and four rebounds last season.

Idaho Vandals

Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce are set to make one more big splash.

The hot-shooting “Splash Sisters,” both seniors, are the reason Idaho is favored to win the Big Sky this year after reaching the title game last season and the NCAA Tournament in 2016.

Ferenz, from Walla Walla, averaged 22.5 points and 6.4 rebounds last season and is the Big Sky preseason MVP, while Pierce (15.6) is on the preseason first team.

Last year they helped Idaho lead the conference in three-point shooting at 36.6 percent while going 19-14 overall, 13-5 in the Big Sky regular season.

“Mikayla and Taylor have had great careers so far here at Idaho, and I am happy to see the respect they have earned from the coaches in the league,” said head coach Jon Newlee.

Idaho loses top rebounder Geraldine McCorkell, but returns 6-foot-4 post Isabelle Hadden.

Eastern Washington Eagles

Yes, the Eagles are rebuilding, but the task isn’t as daunting as you’d think despite the graduation of career scoring leader Delaney Hodgins.

Eastern (17-14 overall and 12-6 in the Big Sky last year) returns three starters, including guards Violet Kapri Morrow. a senior, and Brittany Klaman, a sophomore, and junior forward Uriah Howard.

Morrow, who averaged 17.1 points and 1.4 steals per game in conference play, was a third-team All-Big Sky selection last season. She needs just 200 more points to become the 18th member of Eastern’s 1,000-point club.

Eastern was picked to finish fifth in the Big Sky by the media, seventh by the coaches.

Also returning for Eastern are two seniors – forward Alissa Sealby and center Amira Chandler – redshirt junior guard Baylee Rexing and sophomore center Cailyn Francis.

Longtime coach Wendy Schuller has eight newcomers on the roster.

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