- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Tia Presley acknowledges that the Washington State women’s basketball team celebrates pretty hard on the court after victories.

But that’s because victories in the past have been so scarce for the Cougars.

This year, Washington State (11-7, 5-1 Pac-12) is seeking its first winning season since 1996.

“I am going to continue to celebrate every time we get a win in the Pac-12 because every win is so meaningful,” Presley, the team’s leading scorer, said this week. “We might be celebrating more than other teams, but we are doing something really special over here.”

The Cougars have been awful for years, many times failing to crack double digits in wins and usually finishing at or near the bottom of the league.

Their last winning season was 1996, when they went 17-12. The last time they had a winning record in league was 1991, when they were 10-8.

But thanks to star guards Presley and Lia Galdeira, and a host of returning veterans, the Cougars have already beaten three ranked teams this season and broken some ignominious losing streaks.

“A lot of good things are going on,” said coach June Daugherty.

Presley (19 points per game) and Galdeira (18 ppg) are getting plenty of help from Sage Romberg, who is averaging 9 points and 6 rebounds; Shalie Dheensaw, 7.7 rebounds; and Dawnyelle Awa, 3.4 assists per game.

“Shalie is playing great basketball for us right now,” Daugherty said, while “Dawn is the unsung hero right now in this program.”

Last year, the Cougars finished 11-20, 6-12 in the league. But they showed flashes of brilliance behind Presley and Galdeira, who was just a freshman.

Then the team took a 10-day trip in August to Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. They won all four games they played.

“We had 10 extra practices and phenomenal competition in August,” Daugherty said. “That gave us a lot of confidence.”

They lost their season opener against Syracuse, and were just 4-4 when they traveled to No. 10 Nebraska, where they opened eyes with an 85-78 win. They also beat No. 24 Arizona State and No. 21 Colorado, giving them three wins over ranked opponents for the first time since 1995.

Perhaps more important, they snapped a 36-game losing streak to archrival Washington, their first win over the Huskies since 1995. They beat the Huskies again in the rematch, sweeping the series for the first time since 1975. Dheensaw had double-doubles in both wins.

The Cougars opened Pac-12 play with five straight wins, and then lost their last game 59-57 when Galdeira was sidelined with an injury. The loss dropped them from first place into a tie for third.

After playing five of their first six league games at home, they travel to Oregon on Friday and to Oregon State on Sunday.

“We’ve played some very good basketball on the road,” Daugherty said.

The Pac-12 seems wide-open this year, Daugherty said.

“It’s anybody’s league,” she said.

Of course, the league has belonged for a long time primarily to No. 4 Stanford (17-1, 6-0 Pac-12).

Washington State has never beaten Stanford, losing all 55 times it has taken the court against the Cardinal. Their next chance will come on Feb. 7 in Pullman.

One place where the Cougars need to improve is rebounding, Daugherty said.

“If everyone can start to rebound, we are going to be a tough team to play,” Presley added.

The team also needs Galdeira to get back in the lineup. She is suffering from soreness in her back after taking some hard charges, Daugherty said.

“She is living in the training room,” Daugherty said. “We’re trying to get her muscles relaxed.”

Galdeira is a 3-time Hawaii player of the year who was All-Pac-12 honorable mention as a freshman.

Home crowds have gotten bigger as the victories piled up.

“There is a great excitement about what our players are doing and how well they are playing together,” Daugherty said.

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