Given the stakes last night, it is a little surprising how Washington State played in the first 10 minutes of the game. Even coach Tony Bennett admitted to being disappointed. And we have some thoughts on that, along with links and more comments from the principle players. Read on.
• The game opened with Aron Baynes winning the tip. The Cougars worked the ball for 20 seconds before Taylor Rochestie got into the lane for one of his should-be-patented 10-foot floaters. Except he shot it 9 feet. But the Bruin faithful hardly had time to start the air-ball chant before their team scored on the other end, as Nikola Dragovic spun away from Caleb Forrest inside and put in a soft layup. The tone was set in less than a minute. The Cougars’ shots were going to be a struggle to earn and the Bruins’ weren’t.
But that’s nothing different for this WSU team. It’s had to battle such circumstances before. Lately it’s been successful by keeping its focus, limiting runs and doing what it does best, playing at a controlled tempo. None of those things happened Thursday. For the first time in weeks, when the going got tough, the WSU freshmen played like freshmen. Klay Thompson started hurrying his shots, Marcus Capers tried to do things too quickly and DeAngelo Casto got baited into a key technical foul. Add Rochestie’s shooting woes – he got good looks but they weren’t going down; it happens sometimes – and even Baynes inspired inside play on both ends wasn’t enough against a team of UCLA’s caliber. And the Bruins motivation.
Don’t underestimate that last word. This UCLA team is somewhat of an enigma. At times its played like it wants to return to the Final Four. At others it looks like it wants to return to its locker room. The Final Four team showed up in the Staples Center, ready to play with a fire on the defensive end that never appeared in the Pauley upset. And the Cougars’ response is what upset Bennett. They didn’t match it. Had they, and still lost, this game would have been one of those moral victories you’ve heard about. Instead, it was just another loss, albeit an end-to-this-phase-of-the-season defeat. Now the Cougars will wait until 6 p.m. or so Sunday to find out if they are headed to the NIT or if they’ll have to suit up in the CBI or the other, new-this-year tournament from collegeinsider.com. Remember a couple of years ago when UW expected to get an NIT bid and didn’t? Well, the Pac-10 raised holy heck then and the conference probably won’t ever be snubbed like that again. However, with Arizona, possibly USC and even Stanford battling for NIT invites, it could be interesting for the Cougars. There has been a geographic aspect to the NIT, and there are a lot of possibilities west of the Rockies, from already in Weber State to UNLV to St. Mary’s to any other regular season champion that loses in a tournament. So we’ll see.
• Now on to the links. We have our story of course, along with a bit longer version on the blog. … We can also send you to the P-I, which lives to report another day, where you can find freelancer Howie Stalwick’s story and to the Times for Bob Condotta’s piece. … From around here, you have the LA Times story along with the gamer from the Daily News. … By the way, the Cougar women lost despite setting a Pac-10 tourney record for 3-pointers made in a single game. And, in talking with athletic director Jim Sterk, I found out – and I know this is switching gears a bit – the idea of opening the football season against Stanford on the Thursday night before Labor Day is dead, done in by the lack of a television option. … There is more on the Pac-10 Tournament worth reading, including Chris Dufresne’s column in the LA Times and Jon Wilner’s thoughts from the Mercury News (missing a game like UConn and Syracuse is one of the hazards of being a sportswriter). … And, like always, the Oregonian had a good post.
• There wasn’t much time last night, but we were able to gather a few other thoughts. We’ll share them now.
• Tony Bennett talking about the NIT: “That would be awesome. Any of you guys got any friends, give them calls and let us know. No, I think that we’ve made a pretty solid case. I don’t know how it works. You know, we’ve won four of our last six. Our losses (this season) are against the Pittsburghs, the Gonzagas, Baylors, LSUs, UCLAs, strong finish, very solid league. I don’t know if this is exactly (right), but they say there’s never been a team that’s won eight games in Pac-10 play and not go to the NIT. Someone told me that. I think it might have been one of the Washington assistants. We’ve got nine. I’m hoping that holds true. I know the conference tournaments matter. But that would be a tremendous honor for our program or one of the other ones. Certainly, we’re hopeful. But I don’t know. We’ll see.”
• Talking about Baynes’ play: “I looked at Baynes, he almost was hyperventilating he played so hard. He battled his guts out in this game and I really respected that. And I thought that was nice to see.”
• The misses: “We did get some shots, we certainly did. When you look at the stat sheet, you look at this and say, Thompson 2 of 11, Rochestie 1 of 11. That’s rough. When those guys don’t (shoot it), it’s hard for us against a team like this. But Aron got some close ones, they weren’t falling. We got a lot of close, clean looks and some rhythm looks, but when those weren’t dropping our defense did nothing to hold us in there. That’s what has to happens until you can get some semblance of offense going.”
• Rochestie on UCLA’s 21-0 run: “The problem with the beginning and the early stretch is the fact that we didn’t stop them one time. When that happens, you lose confidence offensively, or you might struggle a little more to score, get anxious that you’ve got to get some quick shots. If you’re not getting stops, you’re not going to give yourself a chance in the ballgame. Sometimes you’re going to make shots, sometimes you’re going to miss shots. But you’ve got to play defense.”
• The tenor of the game: “I always give credit to the other team when they kind of had a lead like that, kind of control the game, so you’ve got to give them credit. At the same time it’s on us. We can’t come out and play like that offensively and defensively. We know we have to stay poised and do the things we do if we want to give ourselves a chance to win.”
• That’s it for this morning. We’ll be back if and when events warrant. We’re also putting together a Sunday story on the season, so we’ll get that up Saturday. But, of course, we’ll have other posts. Until then …