LOS ANGELES – Had this one been any closer, the referees would have had to decide it.
That’s the way it goes here in The Toughest Conference in America ©, where you’d better win by a bunch or risk the likelihood that the dumbest whistle at the worst possible time will send you into prep mode for the NIT.
Indeed, if there was any panic in the eyes of the Washington State Cougars as Oregon chipped away at what was once a 20-point lead Thursday night, it wasn’t because they thought they would lose.
But here in Zebra Hell, you always have to know that it can be taken from you.
Additional evidence was made available earlier in the day at the Pacific-10 Conference Basketball Tournament, when Arizona State was sent off to sweat out Selection Sunday because Jeff Pendergraph was tagged with a dubious over-the-back foul on the tying bucket with 16 seconds left against USC. On top of the two aided-and-abetted heists across town by UCLA last week, Pac-10 officiating is taking such a PR hit it’s starting to be known as black-collar crime.
So maybe Bill McCabe, the league’s coordinator of officials, should send the Cougs and the Ducks a bouquet.
The Cougars made just enough plays and drained just enough free throws at the end to keep it from becoming a one-possession – and thus a one-whistle – game.
And if the Ducks are indeed on the NCAA bubble, they put themselves there.
Aside from the rather frantic entertainments down the stretch, that may have been the most provocative aspect of the Cougars’ third victory over Oregon this season – that it was accomplished front-to-back.
The Cougs, over the course of the season, have been notoriously slow starters and have their NCAA bullet points in place. The Ducks, with 12 losses to their name, were desperate for an extra win or two to use as leverage with the selection committee.
And yet there was Wazzu, up 16-5 and later 42-22 in the first half, a switchblade slicing the Ducks to shreds, fueled solely by the desire to do so and without the need of external motivations – or without the burden of proving themselves.
“It’s something we knew we had to do,” said guard Taylor Rochestie. “They’re really looking for a win, we’d already beaten them twice, we thought they’d come out hungry and we had to match their intensity – exceed it, really. And that was the turning point, because we needed every bit of that cushion.”
Not quite every bit, but enough.
The strange doings in the second half had their root in Oregon’s switching man-to-man defense, which at first yielded some helpful mismatches for the Cougs big and small – none more comical than Oregon’s 5-foot-6 Tsetse fly Tajuan Porter buzzing around Aron Baynes. But when Oregon went to a smaller lineup, WSU coach Tony Bennett couldn’t keep his big center in the game – Baynes didn’t play the last 91/2 minutes – and the Ducks began nicking away at the lead.
“When they want to be,” said Rochestie, “they’re great defensively.”
The margin was 10, then eight, then seven. Trading twos for 3s, the Ducks got it down to six points and then five. And while Bennett credited a couple of defensive stops, the key moments were actually Oregon miscues – Maarty Leunen losing control of a dribble, Churchill Odia fouling on a screen, Hairston missing a 1-and-1. By the time the Ducks finally got the lead down to four, they had to foul – and, remarkably, the Cougars going 7 of 12 at the line was enough to save the day.
But of course, the Cougs had already saved themselves the trouble. They made just two turnovers in their most productive offensive first half of the year. And while Oregon’s strength is at guard, the statistical line of Rochestie, Low and Kyle Weaver (48 points, 10 assists, three turnovers) was better than Hairston, Porter and Bryce Taylor (48, two and six).
“I’m biased, but I think we have some of the best guard play in the league,” said forward Robbie Cowgill. “When (Oregon is) switching and really pressuring, there’s a real onus on your guards to take care of the ball.”
The onus on the Ducks was to take care of business, and they didn’t. They must now hope their Pac-10 portfolio is good enough, because about all they have otherwise to recommend them is an overtime win at Kansas State.
“To go .500 in this league this year,” Bennett said, “that says enough.”
But whatever was accomplished in January and February is not enough for the Cougs.
“We want to make a statement,” said Rochestie. “At the same time, we’re just trying to get better and play great basketball in March. And we want to win this tournament. There are still some teams here who have beaten us twice and we’d like to go up against them.”
A word of advice: don’t let it be close.