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Tough test awaits WSU

COUGARS

The NIT didn’t do WSU any favors. The Cougars play on the road, which was probably expected. They have to play Tuesday night, which means a quick trip from Pullman. They face St. Mary’s, a team that when at full strength, might be in the top five on the West Coast – and the Gaels’ Patty Mills should be pretty healthy by Tuesday. Read on for the unedited version of our story that will appear in tomorrow’s S-R. We’ve also included some web-only notes.

••••••••••

• Here’s the story …

PULLMAN – The Washington State Cougars got their wish. Their season will continue in the 32-team National Invitation Tournament.

But their first test, St. Mary’s, isn’t anyone’s dream opponent. And, as a seventh seed, the Cougars’ road to New York, site of the NIT final four, would include three road games.

The Cougars (17-15) learned Sunday night they will open the 72nd-annual NIT on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in Moraga, Calif., facing second-seeded St. Mary’s, a school many experts believed would receive a second consecutive NCAA at-large berth.

“A lot of people thought they should have been in the NCAA Tournament,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said of the 26-6 Gaels, who average 73.6 points a game. “They’re really good. I know they score a lot and, in their environment, they’ll try to get going.

“We’ll have to be aggressive but we’ll also have to play the way we’ve been successful.”

The Cougars, who lost last Thursday 64-53 to UCLA in the Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinals, will leave Pullman this morning and practice at St. Mary’s this evening.

“That’s a big deal for our program,” Bennett said of a third consecutive postseason berth to go with back-to-back NCAA appearances. “The NIT is very prestigious. … It’s still a well-respected tournament. We’re excited.”

The Gaels don’t seem to be. They expected to be invited to the NCAAs. They even held an on-campus viewing party Sunday but didn’t hear their name called.

“I was hoping common sense would prevail,” St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Common sense is we’re one of the top 34 (at-large) teams.”

St. Mary’s Bennett knew his team was in trouble when Arizona, the Pac-10’s fifth-place team, was announced as an NCAA at-large team. “I didn’t like Arizona popping up,” he said. “But I thought we still had a chance.”

“I’m heartbroken,” said center Omar Samhan. “There are teams on there that we’ve beaten. … People don’t want to play here. It’s a mid-major nightmare. It happens every year to somebody.”

The Gaels set a school record in wins and finished second to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. GU was the only team to defeat St. Mary’s at home, winning 72-70, though the Gaels were without point guard Patty Mills.

“We’ve played some solid basketball on the road,” WSU’s Bennett said of playing in 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion. “It comes down to you have to be able to just play, whether you are home or away, good tournament-style basketball.

“We’ll have to play better than we played against UCLA to advance, or it will be a short trip.”

St. Mary’s lost four games without Mills, who broke his wrist in the first half of the Gaels’ 69-62 loss at GU. Mills, who leads St. Mary’s with a 17.8 scoring average, returned for the WCC Tournament, but was ineffective. He was 2 of 16 from the floor – 0 of 7 from beyond the arc – in the 83-58 tournament title game loss to Gonzaga.

“Take away that injury, and I think they’ll have him back pretty much full strength, and (St. Mary’s) is one of the better teams in the West it would seem,” WSU’s Bennett said.

The Gaels added an extra game with Eastern Washington last Friday, posting an easy 85-65 win. Mills, who played on Australia’s 2008 Olympic team, scored 19 points on 6 of 14 shooting.

Beside Mills, St. Mary’s has four other Australian players and all played at the Institute of Sport, the same program that produced WSU’s Aron Baynes.

“We had the guys over at the house and Aron said, ‘oh man, I’m going to play against all the boys,’ ” WSU’s Bennett said.

St. Mary’s more than just Mills, however. Forward Diamon Simpson, twice the WCC’s defensive player of the year and a three-time all-conference selection, averaged 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds, despite being just 6-foot-7. Samhan (pictured above) is a presence in the middle, with the 6-11, 265-pound junior averaging 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds. Mills, Simpson and Samhan were all members of the All-WCC 10-player first team.

Besides Gonzaga – the Gaels lost three times to the Bulldogs, WSU lost at home 74-52 – the teams have one other common opponent: Oregon. The Cougars defeated UO three times, including 62-40 last Wednesday in the Pac-10 Tournament. St. Mary’s went to Eugene in mid-December and edged the Ducks, 78-73.

The winner of the WSU/St. Mary’s game will face the winner of South Carolina/Davidson in the second round. If Washington State were to win, the Cougars would travel.

NOTES: WSU was the only Pac-10 chosen for the NIT. Stanford (18-13) and Oregon State (13-17) are hosting games in the College Basketball Invitational. … Bennett said Taylor Rochestie practiced Sunday without his fingers taped. And he expects Daven Harmeling to play this week, though he still is limited by his sprained shoulder. … St. Mary’s assistant David Patrick, an Australian native, lived in Baton Rouge as a senior in high school and attended Laurel and Tony Bennett’s wedding. … St. Mary’s recruits Australia as much as WSU does. “We’ve run into each other a lot over there,” Bennett said. … By receiving a seventh seed – all the eight seeds were automatic qualifiers – WSU’s Bennett thinks the Cougars might not have received a berth if USC hadn’t won the Pac-10 Tournament and Arizona had failed to earn an NCAA at-large berth. “Our nonconference was solid,” Bennett, pointing to NCAA participants Mississippi State, which won the SEC Tournament, Pitt, a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, LSU and then Baylor, a three seed in the NIT. “I thought we had a darn good case for getting into this thing.” … The higher seeded team hosts all games, unless it is unable, as is the case with Miami, which, though a five seed in the Florida bracket, will travel to Providence.

•••

• That’s it for tonight. We’ll be back in the morning with links, then we’re racing around to get ready for a trip to the Bay Area and to get our advance done. We’ll have that up tomorrow as well. Until then …


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