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Pac-10 tourney presents challenge for Cougars

Mon., March 9, 2009

PULLMAN – The first two seasons are done for the Washington State men’s basketball team.

The non-conference season ended a couple of months ago. The Pac-10 regular season is also in the past, having finished Saturday with a 67-60 loss to archrival Washington.

Now the Cougars must prepare for the third phase of their year: the Pac-10 tournament.

And there isn’t much time. As the seventh seed, the Cougars (16-14 overall, 8-10 in Pac-10 play) begin the tourney Wednesday night at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, facing last-place Oregon, winner of just two conference games.

“We’ve got to get ready,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said Saturday after the hard-fought loss to UW. “We’ve had a nice finish and they didn’t die in this setting, a tough setting. Let’s take a day off and let’s come ready to go.”

The prize this week, of course, is the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.

But the odds don’t favor the Cougars. They would have to win four games in four days, a tough task for a team that usually uses an eight-man rotation. And one of those eight, senior Daven Harmeling, is day-to-day after spraining his shoulder and missing the Washington game.

“(It) would have been nice to have him in this kind of setting,” Bennett said. “A guy who’s been in this before.”

Still, the raucous Hec Edmundson Pavilion crowd and the physical battle they observed Saturday may pay dividends this week.

“Being in a tough setting like this hopefully prepares you for postseason play,” Bennett said. “I think our style is suited to postseason play. We’re not the deepest squad.”

But it’s a squad that won three of its final four games – including a win at UCLA, the opponent Thursday night if the Cougars get past 8-22 Oregon.

“We’ve played good basketball these last couple weeks,” senior Taylor Rochestie said, “and we’re going to need to play even better basketball next week.”

The seventh seed has never won the Pac-10’s postseason tournament, with only USC in 2003 getting to the finals – and that was when just eight teams qualified. In the seven tournaments with all 10 teams, the 10th seed has posted an upset twice, but not since the conference returned to the format in 2006.

“Now we’re into single-elimination deals,” senior Caleb Forrest said. “We have to try to keep it going as long as we can. I’m not ready to be done with it yet.”

No matter what happens in Los Angeles, the Cougars expect to be playing in a postseason tournament. And Bennett hopes they play as hard as they did Saturday.

“We got it where we wanted to and we did not die,” he said after Saturday’s loss to the Pac-10 regular-season champions, ranked 16th in the nation. “And we had chances to. I guess it was not meant to be.”

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