PULLMAN – In the confluence of three hyperrific games here in the space of six days, would you ever imagine that the least of them might be the – heresy spoiler alert – Apple Cup?
Well, at least it can’t be anticlimactic. Not quite.
That wouldn’t have been the case had Washington State acquitted itself just a skosh better Friday night at Friel Court against fifth-ranked Kansas State, which is to say enough to win. Had the lead the Cougars took with 2 1/2 minutes left held up, football would have been the weekend’s afterthought, never mind the coin-flip future of the coach.
Instead, a couple of heads-up plays by K-State guard Jacob Pullen – a steal that led to the go-ahead basket, and a rebound of his own miss that gave the Wildcats some insurance – spoiled at least the first leg of this Cougar triptych with a 63-58 decision.
The second leg, well, we’ll see today.
And the third, we’ll have to wait until Wednesday when Gonzaga slaloms down from Spokane.
“They play Wednesday night?” asked Wildcats forward Curtis Kelly. “I didn’t know that. I’m going to watch that.
“Any way you can e-mail me a channel?”
Sorry, Curtis. You can’t get Fox Sports Northwest in most hotel rooms in our corner of America, never mind midtown Manhattan … Kansas, that is.
The Wildcats have taken their shots from both the Cougars and the Zags already this year – crushing Gonzaga 81-64 on a not-very-neutral court in Kansas City, and barely surviving this scare on a couldn’t-have-been- more-hostile one.
Maybe it’s the purple in K-State’s school colors that brought out the best in the 11,671.
“It was kind of loud today,” Kelly admitted. “They had a great crowd – harassed us, got in our ear a little bit.”
But not as much as the Cougars got into them.
“I think they’re a great team,” Kelly said.
Yet the fact is, the Cougars weren’t great Friday night.
Courageous, yes. Determined. Resilient. Promising.
But they shot just 37 percent, made a woeful 13 of 23 free throws, got beat up on the glass and turned the ball over 11 times in the first half. Six of those belonged to Klay Thompson, who unfortunately continued his habit of not rising to the occasion in the biggest games – something he has a chance to rectify anon.
“It’s frustrating,” said Thompson, who was just 5 of 15 and missed four free throws, “but I think I’m doing better this year at not being tentative if I miss a couple. But I’ll keep working on it. I’m looking to have another battle on Wednesday and coming back strong.”
But however ragged the Wildcats occasionally made Wazzu look, the Cougars returned the favor.
Pullen is getting some All-American buzz, but he was just 2 of 11 from the field and turned it over six times himself. As a team, K-State committed 21 turnovers, although that’s a staple – the Wildcats had 22 against Gonzaga and 21 in a loss to Duke, and even 19 against Texas Southern.
“They didn’t perform up to the level they usually do, but I think our kids deserve some of the credit there,” WSU coach Ken Bone said.
No Cougar deserves more credit than point guard Reggie Moore, in his first game back from a broken bone in his left wrist. He wasn’t the player he has been or will be, but the Cougars would have been lost without him – and he was nearly the hero with a long jumper that pulled WSU within one and then a feed to D’Angelo Casto for that lone lead in the second half.
“He did a great job of driving and drawing our bigs to help and then kicking it out,” said Kelly.
Thompson was even more effusive.
“Reggie played amazing for his first game back,” he said. “It just shows what he can do when he gets his rhythm back. When we click as a unit, we’re going to be a special team – one of the better teams in Cougar history. We have that much potential.”
Which makes the next measuring stick – Gonzaga – every bit as meaningful.
“They compare in a lot of ways,” Kelly said. “They’ve got great shooters. They’ve got big-time players in Thompson and (Gonzaga’s Steven) Gray. I think it’s going to be a great matchup.
“(Gonzaga center Robert) Sacre should do well – he’s a big body and they don’t have those. But Elias Harris having to step out and guard Washington State’s shooters will be a challenge. Comparing them? Washington State gave us a tougher run, for sure. And home-court advantage also comes into play. I’d like to see it.”
Funny, he didn’t say that about the Apple Cup.