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Originally published Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 5:40 PM

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Sherri Murrell's fresh start at Portland State leads to Vikings' first trip to NCAA tournament

Sheri Murrell quit at Washington State three years ago and has found success with the Portland State Vikings.

Seattle Times staff reporter

After the congratulatory toasts, Portland State coach Sherri Murrell found a quiet moment this week to reflect. In her office, she pulled out a letter from former Washington State men's coach Dick Bennett and let the words — handwritten in cursive on yellow notepaper — consume her, again.

"Through the depths of despair, you'll discover what truly matters to you," he wrote.

Just three years ago, Murrell fired herself at Washington State, after compiling a 27-114 record in five seasons. She didn't have another job waiting and wasn't even sure where she'd live.

But as Bennett's sage words suggested, she found what she was missing. Now Murrell is returning to the state with her Vikings (18-14) grabbing a No. 15 seed in the school's first NCAA tournament appearance. Portland State advanced by winning the Big Sky championship and on Saturday will face No. 2 seed Texas A&M, winners of the Big 12 title, at Edmundson Pavilion.

"I hadn't read the letter since then (2007)," said Murrell, who had three years remaining on her WSU contract when she told athletic director Jim Sterk she was resigning. "I made a really big decision and went out on a leap of faith. What really matters to me, wasn't happening at Washington State. But that whole experience made me so much stronger. I'm living the dream."

Murrell, a native Oregonian, opted to live in Portland to figure her next move. And a week after she put a bid on a home, Portland State called with a job opening.

She accepted, yet things would be different this time.

Murrell altered her coaching style and decided she'd be open about her sexuality, proudly placing a picture of herself, partner and twins in the media guide. She remains the only out Division I head women's basketball coach, saying the honesty is easier on her partner, boosters and players.

"It's not like I had a team meeting and said, 'Hey, I'm a lesbian,' " Murrell said. "But if the kids ask, 'Coach, do you have a family?' I tell them. I made a conscious decision this was how it was going to be.

"A lot won't do it because of a fear of the unknown — people not wanting to send their kids to play for you. I did not know how it was going to play out, but it didn't keep me from being authentic and being myself. And it became a nonissue."

The Vikings hadn't placed in the top half of their conference the previous four seasons, but in Murrell's first year she had the team tied for third in the Big Sky. Combing Washington for talent, last season Portland State placed second with a 23-10 overall record, advancing to the Women's NIT, where the Vikings lost in the second round to Oregon State.

With 12 players returning this year, the team thought it would breeze to an NCAA berth. Yet, the Vikings closed the regular season losing five of their final eight games to be the No. 6 seed heading into the conference tournament.

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"How in the heck did we get here?" Murrell asked herself as the team traveled to Cheney for the conference tournament. "We just never really got into a rhythm. I was just racking my brain and I just stopped myself and said, 'You know what? In three days this could all change.' I had a feeling they were going to come together and sure enough, three days later it happened."

Senior point guard Claire Faucher played to her potential in the conference tournament title game against Montana State, scoring a game-high 26 points, with six assists and five steals. Two late free throws by sophomore guard Eryn Jones helped seal the 62-58 win.

Portland State is part of the record number of mid-majors in the NCAA tournament. Seven received at-large bids.

"I can't believe this is actually happening," said Jones, who starred at Meadowdale High. She's one of eight Washingtonians on the PSU roster.

Texas A&M (25-7) is a challenge with its potent lineup, including 6-foot-1 post player Danielle Adams. A versatile big body, she can hit three-pointers as easily as she barrels in the paint, averaging 16.7 points and 5.7 rebounds off the bench.

Murrell prepped her team by comparing the mismatch to when PSU lost to Syracuse 82-77 in overtime last season. Then, the Vikings got scared and couldn't finish.

But Saturday?

"We're going to have to mean business," Murrell said. "Being our first time in the NCAA, we're not going to settle for that. Some programs might, but we're not. We're going to give Texas A&M all we have."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

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