The way Washington State was dismantling the Baylor Bears on Thursday, it seemed as if the only question left was how high the Cougars should be ranked next week entering Pac-10 play. Then they a hit a bump in their road to national recognition. Read on.
• In a weird way, the squandering of the big lead should work in Washington State's favor the rest of the way. I sat in a lot of gyms last year and watched the Cougars build similar, if not as large, margins only to watch them freeze as the lead melted away. The same thing could have happened in Hawaii. But it didn't. And now the Cougars know they have the ability to overcome adversity. It's a lesson they needed to learn before the wear and tear of conference play hits them. No matter what happens Saturday, WSU has learned a valuable lesson in Honolulu. They can trust each other, they can trust their defense and they can trust Klay Thompson. Those are all things that would have been difficult to sell last season. And that's why I think this team is a top-three finisher in the Pac-10 and should end up in the NCAA tournament. It has a lot of the characteristics of Tony Bennett's first team, the junior-dominated group that had the special run to the NCAA's second round. … We put together this story on the game for you to read. …
Washington State headed for the Hawaiian Islands and the Diamond Head Classic this week wanting to make a statement.
The Cougars made three big ones on Thursday. And now they have a chance to make one more.
The most important, as it usually is, was the final result.
Simply stated, WSU held off 15th-ranked Baylor 77-71 before 7,179 in the Stan Sheriff Arena and a national television audience.
But how the Cougars accomplished their first victory over a ranked team this season was a statement in itself.
They squandered a 20-point second-half lead. They trailed 64-61 with just over 6 minutes left. And then they scored seven consecutive points, got a couple huge 3-pointers from Klay Thompson and missed nary a free throw in the final minute.
Reggie Moore got the comeback started with a drive. Thompson added a lead-regaining 3-pointer from the corner. Moore buried an 18-footer to cap a 4-minute rally.
And, after a 3-pointer pulled Baylor within one with 1:40 left, Thompson made his statement, pulling up from 27-feet straightaway and burying a jumper over A.J. Walton with 70 seconds left, giving WSU a four-point lead it would never relinquish.
Thompson finished with 20 points on just eight shots, hitting all but one of his six 3-pointers.
“He's a beyond-NBA type player,” Moore said of Thompson's shot from well beyond the NBA 3-point line. “I knew it was going to go in. He does it in practice all the time.”
The win over the 15th-ranked Bears not only moved WSU's nonconference record to 10-1 and showed the Cougars can compete with the nation's elite, it put them into the tournament's title game Saturday night.
Washington State will face either last year's NCAA runner-up Butler or Florida State for the championship. The tournament takes a Christmas Eve hiatus as host Hawaii plays in the Hawaii Bowl against Tulsa.
The day off will be appreciated after the Cougars frittered away all of a 55-35 lead built with exceptionally accurate shooting – WSU was 21 of 35 from the floor at that point – and a stingy zone defense – Baylor was 11 of 38.
“We played so well early,” WSU coach Ken Bone said, “and then they just kind of deflated us.”
When Faisal Aden, who finished with 13 points, pumped faked a Bear into the air, dribbled twice and nailed a 10-foot jumper with 14:28 remaining, the Cougars had that 55-35 lead. And it seemed as if just about everything was going their way.
The Bears' leading scorer, LaceDarius Dunn, who came in hitting 50 percent of his 3-pointers, had missed his first 10 shots from beyond the arc, the Cougars had misfired on just one second-half shot and two key Baylor players – point guard Walton and 6-foot-11 freshman standout Perry Jones III – had three fouls apiece.
But there were some warning signs.
The Bears (8-2, with the other loss coming to Gonzaga last week) were dominating the glass en route to 21 offensive rebounds and 32 second-chance points. And WSU had its own foul trouble, with DeAngelo Casto and Thompson each carrying three.
When Thompson picked up his fourth a little more than a minute later, the Bears, a zone-only team in their first nine games, switched to a man-to-man defense and WSU's offense became stagnant.
Brock Motum, who equaled Casto's and Moore's total of 12 points, scored on a 10-foot jumper with 12:36 left and WSU led 59-41. Thompson was on the bench.
But the Cougars then went 6:31 with only Casto's post layup to show for 10 offensive possessions. Meanwhile, Baylor's Dunn, who finished with 29 points on 7-of-22 shooting, 3 of 15 beyond the arc, took over.
The 6-4 guard, who looked lost in the first half, came alive by getting to the free-throw line.
After hitting six consecutive freebies, he got in the lane for a 5-footer, cutting WSU's lead to 59-47, before following up with a 22-footer that snapped Baylor's game-opening streak of missed 3-pointers at 16.
From there, the Bears, who shot just 36.7 percent for the night, didn't miss for 4 minutes and finished off a 23-2 game-turning run, good for a 64-61 lead.
Then the Cougars made their last statement of the night.
They rallied, something last year's team seemed incapable of doing.
“It's really, really hard to be up that many points and lose that lead, no matter how it happens,” Bone said. “But to lose the lead with still 7, 8 minutes to go, last year we might have just rolled over and said 'hey, we've lost it, we're done.' But we persevered and showed a lot of character.”
With the win, WSU will play in its fifth consecutive regular season tournament final, looking for its fourth title. It will be the Cougars final game before they begin Pac-10 play Dec. 29 in Los Angeles.
And a chance to make another statement.
• That's all for now. We'll be back at some point in the next couple days. Until then …