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Slow start, Mills doom WSU

COUGARS

The Cougars’ season ended with a whimper, at least in the first half. They tried to bang their way back after halftime, but once again the hole they decided to dig was too deep to crawl all the way out of. Not with Patty Mills continually throwing dirt on them. WSU got within four with 6 minutes, 36 seconds left, but Mills made two free throws, Omar Samhan hit a 16-foot jumper and scored on a three-point play and St. Mary’s was moving on in the NIT. Read on for the unedited version of our story.

••••••••••

• Here it is …

MORAGA – Maybe St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett should take the DVD and send it to the NCAA selection committee.

Tuesday night was the Gaels at their best.

This couldn’t have been team the committee decided Sunday wasn’t one of the best 34 teams deserving of an NCAA at-large berth.

No, this St. Mary’s team, with a healthy Patty Mills pouring in 27 points in every way imaginable, blew out Washington State early, weathered every Cougar comeback and won the first-round National Invitation Tournament game 68-57 at McKeon Pavilion.

“That was a tough deal, playing on Tuesday after Sunday,” the Gaels’ Bennett said of not having their named called. It didn’t look that way, though, not the way they started.

The West Coast Conference runners-up, who have won a school-record 27 games (against six defeats, four of those without Mills) came out playing on fast-forward and the Cougars seemed stuck in pause.

“They were tremendous early,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said. “Mills was as good as advertised, their offensive rebounding was terrific, their physical play, how hard and tough-minded they were, was impressive.

“On the other hand, we didn’t handle the ball well, did not keep them off the glass and we weren’t together enough defensively.”

The first time St. Mary’s touched the ball, Diamon Simpson flew in from the free-throw line and dunked an Omar Samhan miss, one of five offensive rebounds Simpson would have.

That got the crowd of 2,107 going and the Gaels responded, busting to a 7-0 lead. With the Cougars, who finish 17-16, contributing 12 first-half turnovers, St. Mary’s stretched the lead to 13 at the half and 17 (41-24) a minute into the second.

Then Washington State started to play.

The biggest difference? No turnovers until the last 4 minutes of the game.

“Us realizing it’s probably a good idea to take care of the ball,” Taylor Rochestie answered when asked what changed.

Plus Aron Baynes and DeAngelo Casto clamped down on the glass – Baynes had 10 rebounds, Casto five – and Rochestie finally finding the range, WSU clawed back into it.

But Mills wouldn’t let them take it.

The 6-foot guard, in only his fourth game back from a broken wrist that cost him five weeks – and may have cost St. Mary’s that NCAA berth - hit 8 of 15 shots, 5 of 9 from beyond the arc – and blunting every Cougar second-half rally.

“He’s not hype,” said Rochestie in a somber Cougar locker room. “He’s the real deal. He can shoot the ball. He pulled up in transition one time on me, another time he drove to the basket, finished while getting knocked over with the off hand.

“When you’re making plays like he can make, it’s tough.”

WSU pulled within 43-35 with a 7-0 run, then the Gaels jumped back ahead by 11. The Cougars clawed to within five twice, the first time on Casto’s putback, the next on Rochestie’s layup.

But it didn’t matter because, with WSU within 52-47, Mills showed why he’s projected high in the NBA draft if he wants to leave after this, his sophomore year.

After Rochestie missed a chance to cut the lead to three, Mills pushed, got into the lane around Baynes, attacked Casto and scored on a reverse right-handed layup on the left side of the rim. Twenty-five seconds later he nailed a 3-pointer in transition from 24-feet and the lead was 10.

The Cougar pulled within four on Marcus Capers’ jumper – the freshman tied a career-high with six points, only one less than Klay Thompson – but Mills got to the line hit both free throws, sparking a 7-0 run to end WSU’s hopes.

Mills wasn’t alone, as the 6-7 Simpson added 18 points and 11 rebounds. And 6-10 center Omar Samhan, though saddled with foul trouble, still had 11 points – including five in the last run – and seven rebounds.

Baynes (19 points despite a bad second-half headache) and Rochestie (14 points on 6 of 16 shooting) played as if they didn’t want their WSU careers to end, especially in the second half. But by then it was too late.

“Once again a poor start, similar to the UCLA game,” WSU’s Bennett said. “We needed to come in with a real high-level effort for 40 minutes to be in this deal, nothing less than that would get it done.”

St. Mary’s will play Davidson on Monday in Moraga. The Wildcats pulled another March upset, though admittedly on a smaller scale, by going into Columbia and edging the University of South Carolina, 70-63.

The lights may not have been as bright as they were in Davidson’s NCAA upsets of last year – including Gonzaga in the first round – but the star was the same. Stephen Curry lit up the Gamecocks for 32 points, including 13 of Davidson’s final 17.

•••

• That’s it for tonight. We’ll be back tomorrow with a post-mortem. Until then …


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