There have been nights here against Arizona when the Wildcats could have named the score.
And many nights the Washington State Cougars should have let them.
Mercy killings are always preferable to prolonged and painful slaughter, once the hallmark of the Arizona-WSU basketball series - the Pacific-10’s longest shame-in-progress. The 37-point blowout in Bohler Gym the night the lights wouldn’t work in Friel. The 34-point barbarism the following winter. More references on request.
Nothing like that Thursday night.
The Cougars, as has become their wont, stared down humiliation time and again - clinging doggedly to their dignity in an 87-78 loss to the Wildcats at Friel Court.
That would be No. 23 in a row, if you’re scoring at home. Or 223. It hardly matters.
The pain was minimal. Another brilliant outing for Isaac Fontaine went into the futile file, and then of course there was the inevitable lecture about the Cougars’ youth and better days ahead - never in dispute, but surely in need of qualification.
So here it is:
A check of the Arizona roster reveals one senior, who played all of two minutes Thursday night. On Wazzu’s side, we see four seniors, including the hottest thing the Cougars have going.
Youth must be more relative than we thought. Maybe being in the Top 10 just makes the Wildcats look older.
Actually, no one looks much older these days than Fontaine, who creaked into the post-game interview session with ice strapped to nearly every joint. Still, he proclaimed that the thrill is not gone.
“I always have fun - I like to play basketball,” he said, “though I’d be having a lot more fun if we were winning.”
This after a season-high 32 points, on one more night when the 6-foot-4 senior could do almost anything he wanted - too much, in fact, for some of the Wildcats’ tastes.
“He’s a great player and scorer,” said Michael Dickerson, Arizona’s reasonable facsimile. “Tonight, he was just hitting everything. But he had a lot of help from the refs. You couldn’t touch him. But I guess that goes with being a superstar, like he is.”
With no traditional defense of any consequence, Arizona coach Lute Olson finally resorted to levity. Fontaine took a hard fall in the vicinity of the Wildcats bench, then came out of an exchange laughing.
“I came up limping a little bit,” Fontaine reported, “and Lute told me to take myself out of the game.”
And the next one, too, he might have added. Arizona has one more chance at trying to master Fontaine, who in seven career games against them has averaged a cool 21.1 points.
Of course, Fontaine has just one more chance, too. He’s never celebrated a win over the Wildcats.
How much longer this drought will go on is anybody’s guess, though Cougar coach Kevin Eastman all but promised that future Wazzu teams will be quicker on the perimeter and thus better able to deal with Arizona’s pressure. Yet even he seems at his breaking point with the Cougs’ penchant for the telling turnover.
“We may have to go to something I’ve never gone to, and that’s to take a guy out as soon as he turns it over,” Eastman said. “It’s about the only thing we have left. And if that puts pressure on players, well, that’s college basketball and pressure’s a part of it.”
It wasn’t just pressure, however. The Wildcats fairly brutalized WSU on the glass - a part of the game that, allegedly, is Arizona’s Achilles heel. Meaning it must be Wazzu’s torn Achilles’ heel.
And surely the Cougs had a difficult time locating Dickerson, who is stubbornly tailing Fontaine and Cal’s Ed Gray in the Pac-10 scoring race. He had 28 points on 20 shots, yet Olson called it the junior’s best game in an Arizona uniform.
But in the end, it boiled down to perimeter quickness and WSU’s inability to get into any kind of offense. Eastman, against his better judgment, tried to start a flu-ridden Kareem Jackson, who hadn’t practiced much all week. He opened with an air ball and a turnover and soon gave way to Blake Pengelly, who pretty much gave way to the Wildcats the rest of the evening. One point and six turnovers isn’t much of a recommendation for the point guard of the future, but Eastman insisted, “It was a good baptism for Blake.
“Blake’s going to be fine. And I’ll say it again - he’s better than people think he is. But you still have to play the Arizonas and the UCLAs and you can be as tough as you want to be, but he’s a human being and a kid and there’s going to be a little shakiness.”
But looking across at Pengelly was a fellow freshman named Mike Bibby, almost a year younger, whose line showed 11 points and seven assists.
The Wildcats are going places. The Cougs, well, it will be a spell yet before they’ll be able to figure out where they’re going.
“Our team is weird,” Fontaine admitted, trying to mitigate four straight losses. “We have a lot of young guys who are really very confident. They never seem to be uptight and they’re always having fun. Everybody knows they can play.
“I guess we just have to prove it to everybody else.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review
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