Demolition derbies like this do not turn on something as subtle as a defensive switch.
This time it did.
The play of the game is never supposed to be instant replay.
This time it was.
And when the Washington State Cougars bag a ranked opponent at Friel Court, they can usually be counted on to suggest that room should be made for them in the rankings as well.
This time, not a peep.
They are at the mercy of their memories. Of the biggame trophies mounted on Wazzu’s wall this basketball season, Thursday night’s 83-78 victory over 17th-ranked Oregon may well be the most revered, but only with age. All too recently have the Cougs been road kill themselves.
They could easily have been left for dead again - down a bunch at halftime, tightly wound, shooting erratically, rebounding indifferently - but it would have been unwise. In picking off Top 25 tenants Cal, Stanford and Oregon in the last fortnight, the Cougars have shown themselves to be world-class at home - which is all, really, the Ducks had shown in their 11-1 start, the coronation of third-year coach Jerry Green notwithstanding.
Still, the good vibrations that carried the Cougs to a sweep of the Bay Area bombers two weeks ago had long since dissipated. What last week’s humiliations in Los Angeles didn’t suck out of them, the one-game suspensions of Donminic Ellison and Tavares Mack did.
“I think there was a big question mark,” admitted coach Kevin Eastman, who reinstated the two for this game. “I couldn’t have told you our guys were going to respond. We tried to do everything we could as a staff to keep it positive this week. I don’t know if we were tight as much as we were just wondering.”
What Eastman didn’t know, the players did.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a distraction,” junior Mark Hendrickson said of the hangover from the suspensions.
Funny, then, that what finally seemed to roust the Cougars from that hangover was a sequence of plays early in the second half featuring Ellison firing away from the 3-point precincts and Mack on some frisky moves inside.
Once Mack’s jam with 14:30 to play pulled the Cougars - who had trailed by as many as 12 points - within two, the reins were gathered up by Hendrickson and Isaac Fontaine, who would score 33 of WSU’s last 39 points.
Much of what they did will be committed to the video archives, and the rest of the tape will be submitted to the basketball Hall of Weird.
Just 2 1/2 minutes after intermission, Green chose to re-rest his big gun, Orlando Williams, who sat for 3 minutes while the Cougars trimmed a 10-point deficit to two. Later, when reserve Henry Madden had popped in eight points in the space of a minute and a half and restored Oregon’s lead, Green yanked him - just after Williams sat down again. The Ducks have impressive depth, but it’s doubtful they needed to go to such lengths to prove it.
As the clock dipped under 2:00 and the Cougars leading 73-72, the Ducks appeared to have made a huge defensive stop when Fontaine aired a finger roll and the ball bounced out of bounds with no time showing on the shot clock. But the referees first reset the clock to :01, then viewed a video replay and decided to give the Cougars possession and a fresh 35 seconds.
Eastman claimed the replay showed a second shot that hit the bottom of the rim, hence the reset. Green argued vigorously that the replay can be used only to settle matters related to the clock.
“I thought the deflection went up under the rim,” said Hendrickson, who was under the basket straining for a rebound. “I was standing there with (Oregon’s) Aaron Johnson and neither of us thought it hit the rim.
“The fact is, I hit it out of bounds. What the hell - a call for WSU.”
And a big one. Thirteen seconds later, Hendrickson jammed in a pass from Ellison. Later, he would make a huge steal of Darryl Parker’s inbounds pass and sink two free throws for a 79-76 WSU lead with 32.7 seconds remaining. The Ducks had one hope to tie - get it to Williams, an uncanny 3-point shooter with a special fondness for Friel.
But with Fontaine shadowing Williams - on request, Eastman revealed - the Ducks ran a staggered screen to free their best shooter, only to have Shamon Antrum make a flawless switch and keep point guard Kenya Wilkins from getting Williams the ball.
“We just couldn’t let him get it,” said Antrum, “because regardless of where he got it, he was going to shoot it.”
Friel is where the Cougars come to get well, and the recuperation may well continue Saturday when struggling Oregon State visits. Yet the joy of beating another ranked team Thursday night may settled into more of a sigh - the product of survival, or what the Cougars must yet learn.
“We love to win at home - we have to win at home,” said Fontaine. “But we’ve got to get some on the road, too.”