We said before the game Washington State had to get at least close to a draw on the boards to have a shot. Well, the Cougars didn’t, getting out-rebounded by 12. But they still had a shot coming down the stretch, and that tells a lot about how much this team has improved the past few weeks. With a lot going against them, the Cougars played the Pac-10 champions down to the wire on their home court. Bodes well for the postseason, a postseason that is all but assured and will be, I’m thinking, if they defeat the Oregon Ducks for a third time this year Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. The winner will face UCLA at 8:30 Thursday. Read on for the unedited version of my game story.
• Here’s the story …
SEATTLE – The record will show the Washington Huskies earned their first outright conference title since 1953 Saturday by defeating cross-state rival Washington State, 67-60.
But put the emphasis on “earned.”
The Huskies took the Pac-10 title. Grabbed it, pulled it away, held on.
Just like they did 40 of the 68 possible rebounds. Just like they did with seven steals. And just like they did in the final 4 minutes, when they rebuffed the Cougars’ final rally, scoring 9 of the game’s last 13 points.
In the end, the Husky faithful in the sellout crowd of 10,000 at Bank of America Arena had a chance to watch their team cut down the nets and accept the Pac-10 title trophy – all at the Cougars’ expense.
“We needed a few plays to be made down the end,” said WSU center Aron Baynes, who powered through double-teams all night for 16 points and 11 rebounds. “We weren’t able to do that and they were.”
Not that it was easy, like the 68-48 win over in Pullman to open the conference season 10 weeks ago.
No, this is a different Cougar team, one that was able to withstand foul trouble to co-leading scorer Klay Thompson, able to absorb 18 rebounds from Jon Brockman in his final Hec-Edmundson Pavilion appearance and still have a shot to tie in the final minutes.
“We gave ourselves a chance and just didn’t capitalize on it,” said senior Caleb Forrest, who missed a contested 18-footer with UW leading 58-56 with 4 minutes left.
“It was a good look,” he added, before getting to the nub of the matter. “Also, we really didn’t have a whole lot of options at the time. If you had an open look you had to take it.”
With Thompson in foul trouble all game – he played 28 minutes, his fewest in Pac-10 play – and senior Daven Harmeling in street clothes with a sprained shoulder, WSU’s outside options were limited.
Unlike the Huskies, who got 16 points from Quincy Pondexter from inside and out, and 14 off the bench from Venoy Overton.
Pondexter followed Forrest’s miss with a 10-foot jumper and WSU (16-14, 8-10 and seventh in the Pac-10) would never get closer than four the rest of the way.
The 16th-ranked Huskies, who will take a 24-7 overall record into next week’s Pac-10 Tournament as the top seed, earned with their 14-4 conference mark, led 30-25 at the half when they scored the final five points.
The Cougars pulled within one twice, the last at 32-31 with 18:15 left, but UW spurted away with seven quick points – the last three on Justin Dentmon’s transition bomb – to incite the Husky crowd and force a time out.
Looking for offense, WSU coach Tony Bennett inserted Thompson back into the lineup with three fouls. It worked, as the freshman scored five of his nine points in the next 3 minutes, his 3-pointer drawing the Cougars back to within 42-41 with 11:43 left.
But on the next possession he was whistled for his fourth foul, a call Bennett and Nik Koprivica both felt was on Koprivica.
“I knew what that meant in that time of the game,” said Bennett, who added he acted like a “raving lunatic.”
“We were coming,” Bennett said. “We were starting to get going and we needed another perimeter guy. That just took our heart out.”
And stymied the Cougar offense.
Rochestie tried to take over – he finished with a game-high 23 points on 8 of 20 shooting including 10 points after Thompson went to the bench – but UW sagged off Koprivica and Marcus Capers, taking away Baynes as a second option – as Bennett put it, “they were sitting in Aron’s lap.”
“We had our chances, we could have beat them,” said Koprivica said, who was 1 for 8 from the floor but had five rebounds and assists. “I’m going to take this personally. I should have played much better. I had my chances.
“I missed open shots, I missed almost layups. I’ve got to score if I want to help this team if I had scored a few more shots, we could have won this game.”
“You need a couple guys to stretch it,” Bennett said, “and when you don’t have (that), we ran out of options.”
Down the stretch even Rochestie wasn’t an option, as Overton denied him looks. The two had exchanged words in the first half, when Overton was whistled for three fouls.
“Everyone’s playing hard,” Rochestie said of the exchange. “They had a Pac-10 championship on the line to win it outright and now they’re celebrating. That’s what they wanted. We wanted to come in here and beat the No. 1 team. Everyone’s playing hard. That’s just the way it is.”
Overton didn’t pick up another foul, however, and neither did UW for the first 11:34 of the second half.
Still, WSU had 21 foul shots, hitting 16, including five that helped close the gap, including two from Thompson at the 2:22 mark that pulled it within 62-58.
But Isaiah Thomas came off a Brockman screen and threw in a tough shot over Rochestie, Forrest was called for an offensive foul on the other and UW had its solo title. All that was left was for a few hundred fans to rush the floor and for the players to cut the nets.
“I always dreamed of the crowd running on the court and being in an atmosphere like that,” Overton said. “I got overwhelmed.”
NOTES: The Cougars shot 37 percent from the floor, getting 27 shots in each half. They made just eight before halftime, including none of the three 3-pointers they tried. WSU hit 12 shots in the second half, but its first 3-pointer didn’t come until the 13:12 mark when Rochestie nailed a 23-footer. The senior finished 3 of 8 beyond the arc. … UW wasn’t much better overall, shooting 43.6 percent, but its 13 offensive rebounds helped. The Huskies had eight second-chance points and 32 overall in the paint. … Baynes and Brockman battled for the final time and Baynes, for one, says he’ll miss it. “It’s just fun. It’s fun every time we go at there. We know what the game is going to be like every time. It’s going to be one of those grind out games. Unfortunately he got the better of us this time.” Over their four years, WSU was 7-2 against the Huskies. … Bennett saw a silver lining in the defeat. “Being in this type of setting, hopefully it prepares you for post-season play,” he said. “I think our style is suited for post-season play. We’re not the deepest squad.” … That depth was limited by Harmeling’s injury. “Would have been nice to have him in this kind of setting,” Bennett said. “A guy who’s been in this before. With his shoulder, that hurt. Maybe he could have stretched the defense if he had banged a shot. That would have been ideal.”
• That’s it for now. We’re off to the airport. We’ll be back in the morning with our usual morning-after post, so leave your questions and comments and we’ll try to get to them. Until then …