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Originally published March 17, 2014 at 9:46 PM | Page modified March 18, 2014 at 12:11 AM

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Washington, WSU both make WNIT field

Huskies at home Friday against Hawaii while Cougars are at Montana on Wednesday

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Mercedes Wetmore was speechless after Washington’s defeat against Utah in its Pac-12 tournament opener. The Huskies hoped to use the conference tournament to advance to the NCAAs.

Instead, UW (17-13) learned Monday it would be part of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. It opens Friday against Hawaii (17-13) at home at Alaska Airlines Arena.

“Often times the NIT is downplayed, but really it’s just a chance to get more games in,” said Wetmore, a senior guard. “I’m excited for an opportunity to play six more games at this level. I’m so excited for the future they (the Huskies) have because I really believe once they get into the NCAA tournament, they’re not going to be out of it.”

UW is joined in the WNIT’s field of 64 with fellow Pac-12 teams Oregon, Washington State and Colorado. In fact, should UW advance, it would have to beat all three to reach the semifinals.

The Cougars (17-16) are making their first postseason appearance since 1991 when they lost in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Washington State will play at Montana (22-10) in its opener Wednesday.

“This is a great step for our program,” said WSU coach June Daugherty. “Everybody is excited to see this team continue to play. We’re playing our best basketball … but I just want to give a shout-out to our fans. Our fans have stuck with us through some thin times and things are getting better and better every year. It’s nice that we’ve been rewarded with some postseason play.”

Washington and WSU will try to overcome a similar fault in the WNIT tournament — winning those must-win games. Both teams have quality victories against ranked teams this season as the Cougars beat four nationally ranked opponents while the Huskies defeated No. 6 Stanford and No. 24 California.

But the Washington schools haven’t defeated a team when it needed the victory to boost its resume for the NCAA bracket or win a nonconference tournament. WSU lost in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals to Oregon State. A victory might have clinched an NCAA berth.

“We’ve tried to figure out what that common thread is so when we’re faced with it, we won’t fall prey to the same thing,” said Washington’s first-year coach Mike Neighbors. “I do think it’s one of those things that until you do it, it’s hard to do. You’ve got to get that one and we don’t have anybody that’s gotten it to say, ‘This is what we’ve got to do.’ It’s just a matter of breaking the ice and then it’ll be something they have confidence in doing.”

Washington lost in the second round of the WNIT last season. The Huskies are 8-5 in the tournament overall in five total appearances.

“We had a great Stanford win but I really don’t want our legacy to just be that,” Wetmore said. She played 40 minutes and finished with career-highs in scoring (18 points) and rebounds (eight) with no turnovers in that February victory.

“What I really want is to have a great approach for the team going into next year, even though I won’t be here,” she said. “I want to build that foundation and be one of two teams to end the season on a win.”

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