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

Five years ago, Washington State finished 9-21 in head coach Kamie Ethridge’s first season at the helm.

Now, her Cougars boast a 23-10 record, won the school's first Pac-12 championship in any women’s sport and earned a 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 adept-at-history-making group on her hands, Ethridge told Yahoo Sports a big goal this season has been finding the perfect equilibrium between reveling in the moment and being serious about basketball. To date, they’ve succeeded. The mission continues through March.

“We’re trying to do the exact same thing [we’ve done throughout the season] as attention has come to us,” Ethridge told Yahoo Sports. “To keep it in perspective and have a great balance of, ‘This is the most exciting time of our life.’ But when we have to get ready to prepare for games, and as we prepare for practice, we’re really locked in, and we’re all 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 its transformation this season all the more storybook-like. The Cougars’ roster is made up entirely of three-star recruits and lower. Over the course of Ethridge’s five seasons, she’s brought in a wealth of international players. The Cougars’ starting lineup against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game featured athletes from Canada (Tara Wallack), Estonia (Johanna Teder), Rwanda (Bella Murekatete), Australia (Ula Motuga) and New Zealand (Charlisse Leger-Walker).

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

Since returning to Pullman, Washington — population 32,827 — after their Pac-12 tournament championship victory, the Cougars have felt the warm embrace of their quaint, but impassioned, college town. The first time WSU players stepped back into their athletic dining hall, they were greeted by raucous applause and whoops from their fellow student-athletes. It’s a big step in the right direction compared to the support women’s basketball received back when Motuga first started at Washington State five years ago.

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

“I think as time has progressed now, we’ve seen women's basketball get a bunch more attention and success,” she said. “And I think the cool thing is that, because we are such a small town, everyone really started to buy into each other more.”

WSU went viral three days before earning its first conference tournament title. The Pac-12 broadcast captured the team celebrating its upset of 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!"

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

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

On Feb. 23 in the Cougars’ penultimate regular season game, Washington State exchanged leads with UCLA three times with five ties in between. At one point in the second half, Twain’s song played over UCLA’s PA system. The WSU huddle sang and danced along.

“They have no idea this is our song,” Ethridge said, remembering the team’s reaction to that moment. “We’re going to win this game.”

And they did, 62-55, after losing to the Bruins the month before.

Every singalong seems to further ingrain the song into WSU’s identity, Ethridge said.

But how did it start?

It’s hard for Motuga to recall much before the Pac-12 tournament. So tracing the precise timing of when Twain’s song became the team’s anthem is difficult. It was definitely during nonconference play. Motuga estimates 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 workouts. A tune to occupy their spare time. Instrumental optional, a capella accepted.

“Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” is one of Motuga’s top three karaoke selections (something from Luke Combs or Beyoncé would be the other two, though the exact lineup changes based on her mood). She decided to play it in the locker room before a game. The opening line, like a call to action, pumped the team up.

“Let’s go, girls!”

WSU ended up winning that matchup, and the tradition was born.

Motuga made the song WSU’s own by repeating the opening line in the locker room during pregame. Ethridge called it the phrase of the season.

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

The Cougars dropped just 10 games this season against the eighth-toughest schedule in Division I women’s basketball. Four of those losses coincided with the absence of Leger-Walker, who leads Washington State 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). She was named to the All-Pac-12 team and one of 30 women on the Naismith Player of the Year midseason watchlist.

Her return proved crucial, particularly for WSU’s conference tournament run. She was awarded the 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 in the championship on 7-for-11 shooting and five 3s.

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 with No. 1 seed Indiana, No. 2 seed Utah, No. 3 seed LSU and No. 4 seed Villanova in Greenville 2. WSU is eager to show it's even better than its record and make a run deep into March.

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