Katie Grad sizes up WSU women's hoops outlook

AFTER TWELVE DAYS, the bitter taste of the WSU women’s basketball team’s loss to Eastern Washington in the WNIT is starting to wane. As a player, you critique every aspect of a game, whether you win or lose -- everything from the precision of the angles of your offensive cuts and field-goal percentage, to your defensive footwork and execution of the game plan written on the white board in pregame.

There are always seconds, or minutes for that matter, where you could have performed at a higher level. It was apparent last week that our neighbors from the Big Sky Conference did not match the athleticism of the Cougs and certainly didn’t have two guards like Tia Presley and Lia Galdeira. Yet they managed to pull off the upset on the Cougars’ home court. It hurts, and it will continue to hurt until next season when the girls hit the court again.

With that said, I am here to tell you that you don’t have to wait eight months for the frustration of this 17-16 season to go away. It’s time now to look to the future, because what you’ll find there is bright.

Let’s start with 6-2 freshman post player Louise Brown, whose development went into fast forward when her minutes climbed following the absolutely demoralizing season-ending injury to Shalie Dheensaw in January.

Shalie, we all learned, was invaluable both on the court and off. But the silver lining for the program was that her loss meant someone had to step up. That someone was Louise Brown. She averaged nearly 27 minutes a game this season.

She is young, and by no means did she play perfect, but her competitiveness and grit carried her a long way. In addition, the way she reads the basketball off the rim is spectacular and an incredible asset for the team. She led the Cougars in rebounding, pulling down 207 for an average of 6.5 per game. She also blocked 29 shots, tying her with Shalie for the team lead.

And the bulk of that work was done in the Pac-12 portion of the schedule, after Shalie’s injury.

Bottom line, Louise's development was accelerated in a major way this season. That means the 2015-16 Cougars will start on Day One with two seasoned players -- Brown and senior Mariah Cooks -- in the post. They’ll be complemented with three other posts who all stand between 6-3 and 6-5 -- Ivana Kmetovska, Bianca Blanaru and Nike McClure (pictured above) -- who make for a very interesting rotation up front.

Kmetovska and Blanaru each saw notable playing time this season, also due to Shalie’s absence. And McClure, who redshirted with a knee injury, is super intriguing because she’s incredibly athletic -- to the point she can dunk. She was rated the No. 22 forward prospect in the country by ESPN.com when she was a high school senior a year ago.

Now let’s move to the back court. Tia Presley, of course, is gone. She can’t be replaced because she’s an all-time great with competitiveness matched by no one. However, with the amount of talent June Daugherty has at guard, the void can be managed.

Between all-conference selection Galdeira and steady-as-they-come point guard Dawnyelle Awa you have two players who started every game in 2014-15 and averaged 29 and 27 minutes, respectively. Believe me, as someone who had the privilege of playing with both of these ladies, that is one very nice place to start your guard play.

Then you have Taylor Edmondson, the spark off the bench, who knows how to find the basket, plus wily veteran Alexas Williamson and two youngsters -- Pinelopi Pavlopoulou and Caila Hailey -- who displayed tremendous potential this season as true freshmen. Pinelopi played in all 32 games, averaged 12 minutes and showed off serious accuracy from beyond the arc. Caila played in 27 games, averaged 7.1 minutes and made huge strides in the latter half of the season.

I can’t tell you about much about the three new recruits who are coming in -- guards Borislava Hristova and Alexys Swedlund and 6-4 center Maria Kostourkova -- except that all three are scorers. Regardless, the cupboard in Cougar women’s basketball is far from empty right now.

Dick Bennett once said about building a program that “You’ve got to find guys you can lose with before you can win.” The Cougars went 7-9 after Shalie was injured, winning some great games and losing tight ones to Oregon State and UCLA. But losing that last one at the buzzer to EWU is going to stick with these guys. They will not forget how awful it felt to walk out of Beasley with EWU celebrating. That’s what Coach Bennett meant by finding guys you can lose with before you can win -- finding people who will take a loss like that so personally that they will push themselves to the absolute limit trying to make sure it never happens again.

Aside from their talent, replacing the leadership skills of Presley and Dheensaw will be a priority for Coach June next season. The returning upper classmen understand the high expectations of the staff, teammates and “old timers” like me who are out here cheering. With Galdeira, Edmondson, Awa, Cooks and Williamson, the makings are there to do what it takes.

I am excited about next season and the positive direction of Washington State women’s basketball. In fact, I’ll bet the girls are already back in the gym working on their game.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Katie Grad played guard at Washington State for five seasons. Upon graduation in 2013, she had appeared in more games – 120 – than all but three players in WSU women’s basketball history. Four straight seasons she earned all-conference all-academic honors. In 2009-10 she became just the eighth freshman in WSU history to appear in 30 games in a single season. She came to WSU from Auburn-Riverside High, where she was a three-time team captain and helped guide the school to back-to-back state Class 3A titles. As a senior there she was named state player of the year. Today, Katie is a project coordinator for the Seattle Sports Commission, where she helps stage events such as the recent NCAA men’s basketball tournament games at KeyArena.

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