Some six days ago, when Washington State learned it would probably spend its remaining days in the National Invitation Tournament on the road, Cougars guard Isaac Fontaine vowed to make it to New York.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore meant New York City - where the NIT will hold its semfinals and finals - not the state.
So when it was pointed out Wednesday that he might have already reached his goal by helping WSU into this afternoon’s 4:30 quarterfinal-round matchup against Canisius at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Fontaine made it clear that wasn’t the case.
“When I said New York, I meant a little farther east - to New York City where the big games are played,” Fontaine explained. “We’re just one step away from Madison Square Garden and just two steps away from the championship game.”
Standing in the Cougars’ way is a Canisius squad that is 20-12 after knocking off Bradley 55-53 in Monday’s second-round game at Bradley.
The game was not originally scheduled to be televised, but officials from WSU and KXLY-TV in Spokane negotiated late Wednesday with the Empire Sports Network of New York and have agreed to show the game live in Spokane.
The game will be aired on KXLY EXTRA, cable channel 14, pending technical difficulties. KXLY was also attempting to deliver the broadcast to CableVision in the Pullman-Moscow area.
The winner of tonight’s game will advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden, where it will face Virginia Tech (23-10) at 4 p.m. (PST) Monday in a Final Four matchup that will be televised live nationally by ESPN.
The Golden Griffins tied St. Peter’s for second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference behind Manhatten and are led by a pair of athletic upperclassmen, who WSU coach Kevin Eastman says can play with the best in the country.
Micheal Meeks, a 6-9 junior center, is averaging 16.3 points and 7.0 rebounds a game and, according to Eastman, can “play in any league out in this area, including the Big East.”
Eastman added that Craig Wise, a 6-4 senior guard averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, is “capable of playing at a level above” where he’s playing right now.
Adding to Eastman’s concern is the fact that the Golden Griffins have defeated six NCAA Tournament teams - Cincinnatti, Pennsylvania, North Carolina-Charlotte, Colgate, St. Peters and Manhatten - on the road.
“They’re a good team, based on their 6-0 road record against NCAA teams,” Eastman said, overlooking a 74-63 loss at Gonzaga in the Golden Griffins’ seventh game of the season. “All five of their guys can play outside the 3-point area, and they drive about as well as any team we’ve played.”
The key, Eastman said, will be keeping Canisius’ quick guards from penetrating and either going to the basket or kicking it out to one of its shooting guards.
Still, Griffins coach John Beilein says his team will have trouble matching up against the Cougars.
“They’re just a great outsideshooting team with terrific quickness on the perimeter,” he said. “And because of their two 6-9 kids (Mark Hendrickson and Tavares Mack), we’ll have trouble matching up with them on the blocks.”
The numbers would seem to favor WSU, which leads the nation in shooting percentage (52.0) and has played extremely well in knocking off Texas Tech and Illionis State in the first two rounds of the NIT.
But Beilein says he hopes to combat whatever edge the Cougars might have with the chemistry and intelligence of his veteran team.
“We can play some pretty good basketball here in the East,” he said. “We’re just hoping we can guard them effectively. If we can take good shots and make them take the ball out of bounds all the time, it will sure help our defense.”
Beilein has undoubtedly noticed that WSU has not been the same team on the road that it has been at home.
But Hendrickson, who is averaging 16 points and nine rebounds a game for the Cougars, hinted that this is not the same team that went 4-8 on the road during the regular season.
“We’re past that stage now,” he explained, “and we’ve matured enough late in the year to handle games whether we’re at home or away.”
“As a young team, you play well at home. But on the road, when things start going bad, you tend to start pointing fingers, and that’s the way we were a few games this season. Hopefully, we’ve got that out of our system.”
Hendrickson admits to not knowing much about Canisius, a team the Cougars will play in the first round of the Carrier Classic in Syracuse next season.
“Sometimes I think it’s better going into a game and not knowing what to expect,” Hendrickson said, “because then you’re not out there thinking. You’re just playing and reacting - and that’s how we play best.”
Since arriving in eastern New York late Tuesday night, the Cougars haven’t had much time to sightsee. The team is planning a Friday trip to Niagra Falls, win or lose. Fontaine said he isn’t impressed with Buffalo, which was has been covered by gray clouds since WSU’s arrival.
“This is our first trip to New York, ever,” Fontaine said. “It’s just Buffalo, I guess. There aren’t any big skyscrapers like I’ve seen on TV, so I want to get to New York (City), which is what everybody always talks about.”
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