Washington State women’s basketball coach June Daugherty has taken a strange path toward what is shaping up to be the Cougars’ most successful season in 17 years.
Over the past two months, it has included stops in places like Brookings, S.D., the Virgin Islands and Columbus, Ohio. The Cougars got caught up in the national news coverage of the Penn State scandal during a trip to State College, Pa., in early November, then they cooled off in the winter air of Madison, Wis., a week later.
All in the name of revival.
After three consecutive seasons of relentless losing, the Cougars decided the only way to get better was to step into the lion’s den. WSU opened its season with a murderer’s row of opponents, came out of it with a respectable 6-6 record and a jolt of confidence, and now the Cougars are reaping the benefits.
“We’re headed in right direction,” Daugherty said this week, as her 9-7 Cougars prepare to host the University of Washington in a Saturday Pacific-12 Conference game.
While Daugherty has never really strayed from the path she set when she arrived at WSU four-plus seasons ago, this marks the first time that the wins have provided statistical proof that the Cougars are indeed headed in the right direction. WSU already has more wins than it had in either of the past two regular seasons. Two more wins, and Daugherty will match her season-best win total at the school. Only a late 11-0 run by Colorado last Saturday kept WSU from opening the conference season with four consecutive victories — something the program has never done.
The Cougars have come a long way, in more ways than one.
“Just seeing us get more wins than losses is fantastic,” said Jazmine Perkins, the senior leader for the Cougars. “But I speak for everyone when I say we’re not satisfied. We want to keep going in the same direction.”
Perkins is one of four members of Daugherty’s original recruiting class who are finally reaping the benefits of four seasons of hard work. The former UW coach and one-time Mukilteo resident scoured the nation to find the right players to help turn around the program, eventually plucking Perkins out of the Bay Area, April Cook out of Southern California and Rosie Tarnowski out of Philadelphia to go along with Lake Tapps product Katie Grad.
“We tried to attract individuals who were tough enough to weather the storm, so to speak, for awhile,” said Daugherty, who has a 41-96 career record at WSU after leading UW to six NCAA tournaments in 11 years with the Huskies, “people who came in knowing we were going to take some lumps early in their career. Our seniors want to earn a legacy here. They came in wanting to put a banner up in Beasley (Gym), and those things are in place now.”
Perkins, who was virtually ignored by Cal despite growing up in Berkeley, said the opportunity to help build a program was part of what drew her to WSU.
“I just knew I wanted to be a part of something different,” she said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere just because of the name across the chest.”
While this year’s Cougars had the experience and depth to generate some excitement, their early-season schedule looked like it could be a recipe for disaster. Included among the non-conference opponents were six participants from the 2011 NCAA tournament, and WSU lost to two of them by four points or fewer.
Eleven teams on this year’s WSU schedule have received votes in top 25 polls.
“We have a championship mentality here at Washington State,” Daugherty said. “We believe that we can be the best. We don’t believe in scheduling easy, cupcake wins. You have to go out and experience tough environments to really understand what it’s like.”
The early-season schedule seems to have helped the Cougars in Pac-12 play.
“Our preseason has helped us tremendously,” Perkins said. “We got to play against the best teams in the nation. That was fun for us. It gave a lot of people the confidence that we can play with these teams, we can beat these teams.”
WSU’s next challenge is trying to snap a 32-game losing streak against the rival Huskies, a span of frustration that dates all the way back to the 1994-95 season. While both Daugherty and Perkins tried to downplay the streak, it’s an obvious source of motivation this week.
“Bragging rights of winning an in-state rival game are always important,” Daugherty said. “Certainly, there’s more motivation. But it’s important to make the distinction between motivation and playing your game.”
Perkins admitted that she doesn’t want to leave WSU without beating the Huskies at least once.
“Yeah, I’m a Coug, of course,” the WSU senior said. “But we’re all going to do what we all have to do — against anyone. Washington State hasn’t beaten a lot of these teams, whether it’s Stanford or Arizona or Arizona State. It’s not just the Washington game. I could care less about that. It’s about more than that for our basketball family. It’s about trying to leave a legacy.”
Four years into Daugherty’s tenure, the Cougars are finally starting to do that. WSU looks like it’s on the right path, after all.
“We walked into this program with eyes wide open,” Daugherty said. “We knew this program had not been to the postseason since 1991; we knew the culture wasn’t anywhere near where it needed to be. It’s exciting to think, our first year, we had an RPI in the 300s — and now we’re in the top 40 in the country.”