To quote Tony Bennett, this one hurts.
It hurt Saturday, when his Washington State Cougars tossed away a seven-point, second-half lead and lost 64-52 to Louisiana State before 10,585 at the Pete Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, La.
“We felt we had that game in our grasp, so that’s why it hurts so much,” senior point guard Taylor Rochestie said.
It could hurt even worse in March, when the NCAA tournament field is announced.
Though Bennett, WSU’s third-year coach, isn’t looking that far.
After WSU turned the ball over 19 times, including eight in the final 6 minutes, 24 seconds, Bennett couldn’t even look past the day’s final few possessions.
“There are two things that have to happen down the stretch,” Bennett said. “Your defense has to make them shoot tough shots and I think we gave up a couple easy ones. And then you have to be sound and get quality shots at the end of the game.
“Those two things just slid right off the edge of the cliff.”
And the fall was steep.
The Cougars (8-4) led their final non-conference game 47-40 with 9:14 left after Klay Thompson converted two of WSU’s eight free-throw attempts. Less than 30 seconds later the lead should have grown to nine, but Nik Koprivica’s open layup from the left side didn’t hit rim, flying long.
The miss seemed to deflate the Cougars.
Before Koprivica’s drive WSU was 9 of 10 from the floor in the second half. After that the Cougars were 2 of 10, with both makes by Aron Baynes. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound center played just 22 minutes after picking up two quick first-half fouls and still finished with nine points and five rebounds.
Add in the eight turnovers and WSU was outscored 24-5.
“We certainly collapsed,” Bennett said.
The Tigers (10-1 and with a 13-game home winning streak) roared back, first behind Garrett Temple, who scored six quick points and finished with 13, and leading scorer Marcus Thornton, whose 3-pointer in transition at the 5:38 mark, gave LSU a 50-49 lead they never gave back – because WSU kept giving the Tigers the ball.
“Down the stretch it was just mental errors,” Rochestie said. “Coach talks about soundness all the time and at the end of the game we weren’t sound.”
A Koprivica turnover – he had three to go with five points – led to Temple’s free throw. After Baynes’ free throw cut the lead to 51-50, Thompson turned it over and Rochestie missed a 3-pointer. But LSU didn’t capitalize until Tasmin Mitchell finally hit a 5-foot runner in the lane.
But Baynes answered again and, with 3:16 left, WSU trailed by only one, 53-52.
Yet, despite getting stops when Marcus Thornton had two shots blocked and Bo Spencer, who kept LSU in it in the first half with 12 of his game-high 19 points, missing in transition, WSU couldn’t take advantage.
The Cougars turned the ball over three consecutive possessions and LSU, which shot 38.9 percent from the floor (10 percent less than its season average), started making shots.
Quinton Thornton made 1 of 2 free throws, Marcus Thornton added a 3-pointer and, when Spencer stole a pass and went the distance for a layup and a foul, it was 60-52. The Tigers scored the game’s final 11 points.
“At the end, I feel like we kind of just gave them the ball,” Rochestie said. “Literally, we just gave it to them with turnovers, letting down our guard and not showing toughness at the end of the game.
“We started turning the ball over and they were capitalizing on our mistakes. And they were hitting big shots. They were hitting shots with hands in their faces.”
Lost in the end-of-game collapse was how WSU built the lead.
The Cougars had to play all but 4 minutes of the first half without Baynes, their leading scoring. And still they trailed by just 25-23 at the break.
“He’s such a big part of our team, such a big part of our offense, rebounds, everything,” Rochestie said. “Not having him, we struggled to establish ourselves in the first half offensively. Defensively, we did a pretty decent job.
“We have to play different rotations, we have to play defense a little differently when Baynes isn’t in the game. We’re a little undersized.”
That undersized lineup, led by Rochestie and Thompson, limited LSU to 8 of 28 (28.6 percent) from the field and outrebounded the nation’s leading rebounding team 20-18 (the final tally was 33-28, with Rochestie leading the way with a season-high nine).
Then the Cougars came out of the locker room on fire.
Thompson, who was credited with 12 points but actually scored 14 – his 15-foot jumper with 7:29 left in the first half was mistakenly given to Rochestie – missed on WSU’s first possession.
The Cougs then hit their next nine shots from the floor and all four free throws in building the 47-40 lead.
“I’m happy with the way we played up until about seven minutes (left),” said Rochestie, who was officially 6 of 16 (2 of 3 beyond the arc) for a team-high 14 points. “When you have a five- or seven-point lead with about seven minutes left to go, especially with the way we played … you should be able to at least hold it close toward the end of the game a shot to win.”
The Cougars couldn’t and that was a sore point.
“That one hurts a lot,” Bennett said. “But that’s the way this game goes. We’ve got the Pac-10 starting and we came down here to learn something.
“I don’t like what we learned, unfortunately.”
Most of the lessons were negative.
“Our decision-making down the stretch – the turnovers, not having composure in that setting,” Bennett said. … “I told our guys if we’re going to have any chance to be competitive, to be successful, we’re going to be in a lot of tight games. Until you learn how to take care of the ball and be sound, you’ll never win those games.”
Senior Daven Harmeling, shooting 43.5 percent from beyond the arc and averaging eight points, didn’t take a shot in his 23 minutes. … Caleb Forrest picked up two early fouls, but continued to play in the first half. He finished with 10 points on 4 of 5 shooting. … For the second consecutive game Rochestie played all 40 minutes. … LSU has struggled at the free-throw line down the stretch of games, but was 7 of 9 in the final 5:14. The Tigers were 13 of 15 overall. … LSU coach Trent Johnson, the former Stanford coach, gave a lot of the credit to Temple. “He needs to lead,” Johnson said. “It’s interesting because sometimes kids give leadership lip service and it’s phony. His whole thing and persona is real. I’ve been around this a long time and this kid has discretion in terms of his leadership.”