Washington State center Efe Abogidi (0) blocks a shot by Arizona guard Jemarl Baker Jr. (3) on Jan. 2 in Pullman. (Dean Hare/The Associated Press)

Washington State center Efe Abogidi (0) blocks a shot by Arizona guard Jemarl Baker Jr. (3) on Jan. 2 in Pullman. (Dean Hare/The Associated Press)

CARMAN COLUMN: Cougs’ hoops teams on the ascent

A TEAM’S RISE can be just as satisfying as the ultimate destination.

This is a lesson that can be learned early in your tenure as a sports fan, like when the growth of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton in the 1991-92 season signaled the Seattle SuperSonics imminent ascent through the Western Conference ranks in the mid 1990s.

Or the accumulation of talent on the Mariners arising from some luck in the MLB draft in the 1990s and the arrival of a certain future Hall of Famer in 2001.

Or rookies Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner joining the Seahawks in 2012, two sure-fire candidates for inclusion in the hallowed halls of that football museum in Canton, Ohio, after their careers wrap up.

But having two teams on the rise in the same year at the same school? Washington State hoops fans can enjoy the rare air the Cougar men’s and women’s teams are occupying thus far this season.

There are some holdovers from last season’s improved squad for second-year Washington State men’s coach Kyle Smith. Point guard Isaac Bonton, a junior college product from Portland, and shooting guard Noah Williams out of O’Dea in Seattle, have the Cougs at 9-2 overall after splitting the team’s first road trip with a comeback win at Cal and a loss against 9-2 Stanford.

When Bonton is at his best, which he has been against Pac-12 competition this season, he is an efficient scorer, a distributor, a guard who can get some rebounds in low and a disciplined defender.

Williams is a 6-5 sophomore scorer who has Cougar genetics. His dad Gus was a standout for the crimson and gray.

CBS Sports college hoops analyst Jon Rothstein has been all over the Cougs from the start.

He recently commented that “the nation’s most underrated backcourt resides in Pullman. Washington State’s combo of Isaac Bonton and Noah Williams is formidable. Imagine if this team still had CJ Elleby?”

Elleby, last season’s leading scorer, is now a member of the Portland Trailblazers.

Bonton and Williams could soon join Elleby in the NBA, but it’s freshman center Efe Abogidi who is drawing the interest of NBA scouts as the Nigerian-born, Australian-trained new era big man swats shots.

Abodigi averages 2 blocks per game to go along with his 10.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. At 6-11, 225 pounds, he also possesses a sweet touch from beyond the 3-point line, hitting 47.8 percent of his attempts (11 of 23), and is 30 of 37 (81.1 percent) from the free-throw line for a team that needs better shooting from outside and at the line to really compete for an NCAA tournament berth.

Cougar assistant coach and former Chimacum standout Jim Shaw, who set a Class B record with 25 free-throw attempts in a 1979 state tournament game against Liberty (Spangle), has been tasked with improving the free throw fortunes of a team that is shooting 67 percent from the stripe this season.

WSU women

Led by New Zealand sisters Krystal Leger-Walker, a redshirt senior, and Charlisse Leger-Walker, a freshman, the Cougars (5-1, 7-1) became the last Power 5 team to ever be ranked by The Associated Press after a 71-69 win over No. 7 Arizona on Sunday earned the team the No. 25 ranking in the weekly poll.

Charlisse Leger-Walker has been a revelation at guard, winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week for four consecutive weeks, joining standouts such as Washington legend Kelsey Plum as the fourth player in Pac-12 history to achieve that feat. Leger-Walker had the tying basket in regulation and the drive and winning layup in overtime Sunday to earn WSU’s second win over a ranked opponent this season.

Not bad for a team that was picked dead last in the 12-member conference in preseason polls.

The rise hasn’t gone unnoticed. Or unappreciated.

Smith was asked about the play of the Kamie Etheridge-led Cougs during his weekly zoom call Tuesday.

“I’m glad you asked,” Smith said. “I’m a huge fan. I watch them every Sunday or every chance I get, really. My wife and I lock in … The way they play, they are so unselfish. To see them turning it, and the way they are doing it, with a lot of enthusiasm and love for the game, they are a joy to watch and also a great model for us.

“Kamie let me talk to the girls yesterday for a few minutes, just wanted to express my gratitude for the way they played. We are using them as a role model, and I hope we can make such strides. The way they are doing it is the right way.”

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Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com.

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