March 14, 2008 in Sports

Cougars dispatch Ducks

By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

WSU’s Nikola Koprivica, left, greets Taylor Rochestie and Derrick Low, right.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – This is, in a sense, a David vs. Goliath tale, told with some subtle subtext.

There’s your usual big guy against the mighty mite theme, played out all over the Staples Center floor Thursday night.

There’s the giant first half put up by the Washington State Cougars and the puny, in comparison, showing they had in the second in their Pacific-10 men’s basketball tournament quarterfinal.

But in both the underdog Ducks just didn’t come up big enough, and the 21st-ranked Cougars held on for a 75-70 victory to move into the tournament semifinals tonight against Stanford.

The most obvious big vs. little battles came late, after the Ducks (18-13 and hoping for an NCAA tournament berth) battled back from a 20-point first-half deficit and cut it to as few as four. The first time came after 5-foot-6 Tajuan Porter nailed a long 3-pointer over 6-6 Kyle Weaver, WSU premier defender, with 1 minute, 25 seconds left.

“He’ll shoot it from anywhere,” said Weaver, who finished with 14 points and seven assists. “He’s a tough matchup. I think switching at the end, with Robbie (Cowgill), who did a good job on him, was key for us.”

After Porter’s shot, Oregon coach Ernie Kent used his final timeout, and, given the chance to make a change, WSU coach Tony Bennett did.

“We decided to switch the ball screens – better 2 than 3,” Bennett said, meaning he figured if Porter got around the big and scored, it was better than a long-range, crowd-charging 3-pointer.

But after Nik Koprivica hit 1 of 2 free throws – WSU converted 11 of 16 free throws in the final 4:30 – to put WSU up 69-64, the 6-9 Cowgill did even better than that. The next three Oregon possessions, all featuring Porter dribbling off a screen from 6-9 Maarty Leunen – and forcing Cowgill to guard him – the sophomore point guard missed a 3, drove for a tough basket and traveled.

“It was definitely a little nerve-racking,” said Cowgill, on a day he scored 12 points and was named the men’s basketball scholar-athlete of the year in the Pac-10. “I just tried to keep him in front of me then not let him get a 3 off.

“That might be a one-time deal. You can do that at the end of the game, but not the whole game definitely. I now sympathize with our guards. It’s harder than you think to guard a guy that quick.”

The next time Oregon got the ball back, there were 30 seconds left, the Ducks trailed by seven and WSU had ensured a sweep of the three games this season.

But the Cougs wouldn’t have raised their record to 24-7 – and posted a school-record 50th win in the past two seasons – if it weren’t for the Ducks’ bigs inability to do what Cowgill could.

Early in the second half, Oregon decided to switch every screen, leading to such matchups as Porter trying to guard 6-10, 270-pound Aron Baynes in the post and 235-pound Joevan Catron trying to handle Derrick Low or Taylor Rochestie. The two guards finished with 16 and 18 points, respectively.

Though it looked like Porter was the guy to exploit, WSU went the other way.

“We probably took advantage a little bit more of their big guy guarding our guard, and him making the play,” Cowgill said. “Derrick had a couple nice drives, so did Taylor and Kyle. … We let them switch and once we got the mismatch we want, we’ll kind of iso(late) and let that guard take them and try to make plays.”

They did, but that also goes against WSU’s usual offensive M.O. When Oregon took Catron out, WSU followed suit with Baynes and the Cougs’ offense stagnated. The Ducks, powered by Porter and Malik Hairston, who split a total of 40 points, went on a 14-4 run to get as close as they had been since the first 5 minutes of the game.

“It’s a challenge to play with a lead like that, because you know a team is going to come back,” Bennett said. “But our guys withstood it.

“That was enough for us, because we spotted ourselves enough of a lead early.”

That lead Bennett was referring to was as many as 20 (42-22 with 45.8 seconds before halftime).

“We were sharp defensively and offensively,” Bennett said. “I thought we moved the ball well, we were sound with it … and we took advantage when they started to try to jump out, we got some easy baskets. It wasn’t just 3s. We also got some easy baskets. … It was just a very well executed first half.”

The Cougars hit 16 of 26 shots (61.5 percent), their best first-half performance against a Pac-10 opponent. They had 10 assists and just two turnovers.

Only a 5-0 Ducks run to end the half, highlighted by LeKendric Longmire’s strip of Rochestie, which led to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, kept UO within 15 at intermission.

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