Episode 4,382 in the ongoing reality soap that is The Real Cougs of Spokane County:
That’s how many passed through the portals of the Spokane Arena on Friday night for a live eyewitness sizing up of the Washington State Cougars, who a day before were the talk of office water coolers for their 22-point pasting of Gonzaga.
Talk is cheap, of course. Tickets cost real money.
Yes, yes, I know. The opponent.
It was something called Texas-Pan American, which sounds like a failing regional airline, though it has a storied basketball history, at least in the sense that the late Abe Lemons used to coach there, and no one had more stories – or funnier ones – than Abe. Alas, that was 35 years ago and since then UTPA has done time in four different conferences and as an independent, and no time at all in the NCAA tournament.
So it’s one of those college basketball nonentities the ticket-buying public sees on the schedule and says, “Who? No way.”
Still, 4,382 made it to the gym, and if it was not what might be expected given the buzz generated after rolling Gonzaga, the surprise is that 4,382 even knew the Cougs had a game. WSU’s game in Seattle three weeks ago was better marketed in Spokane than the Spokane game was marketed in Spokane.
Naturally, with the joint only a third full and no student presence, the biggest challenge the Cougars faced was, well, atmospheric. After all, their last two games drew nearly 22,000 boisterous fans.
“It’s hard to go anywhere and simulate what our guys have gone through the last two games in the environment on campus in front of great, great crowds,” said coach Ken Bone, measuring his words as always.
“So it didn’t matter where we went. But still, these fans were here to support us and there were however many – four, five thousand – and we appreciate their support.”
Ambiance is an issue because on Thursday the school revealed that next year’s home games against the Oregon schools will be played in Spokane just before New Year’s.
That it was an actual announcement a year in advance and not just an afterthought to the full schedule release next summer, as well as the big-picture enthusing from athletic director Bill Moos, suggests that the Cougars are again weighing this as a regular thing those years when the first Pacific-10 Conference home games are to be played before students return to campus.
“It is vital,” Moos said, “to the growth of Cougar athletics that we engage in the Spokane community.”
That’s been said before. The engagements have been fitful.
But fun. Without them, Spokane doesn’t see three NCAA tournaments come to town. Wazzu is the host for those events, and in that regard a true civic partner.
But there have been years when WSU played here only to fulfill the NCAA’s requirement for a shakedown game at tournament venues. Irony was stretched to the point of incredulity at a token affair in 2002 on the same day Gonzaga played across town.
That low-point opponent was High Point. The crowd was 1,841.
Indeed, it’s always hard to know what to make of the audience the Cougs lure on their irregular forays to Spokane, and whether the school actually cares if anyone shows up. In 1997, a name opponent – Texas A&M – was booked, but Wazzu decided to keep it a secret and drew just 1,606. Arizona came in a week later with the nation’s fifth-ranked team and 5,339 were coaxed out, then dissed by Wildcats legend Lute Olson as a paltry showing.
And former Cougars coach Dick Bennett put an end to playing Pac-10 games here, though he was polite enough to do it without public rancor. He simply didn’t think it gave his team the best chance to win – even when Spokane routinely outdrew comparable student-less Pullman dates.
“It’s different than playing in your own arena,” acknowledged WSU forward DeAngelo Casto. “Your students are up and wild and you pick up on that energy. Today we had to build our own excitement and people were just watching, so to speak, rather than cheering.”
Can the Cougars develop an energized following with just occasional visits?
“I think so,” he said. “A lot of people here are Gonzaga fans so they’re not used to seeing Washington State on a regular basis, but I think when we get up here they’ll show up and be loud.”
But not if WSU just puts the “Game Tonight” sign on the door.
“The key is consistency,” said WSU associate athletic director John Johnson, “and we’re going to maintain consistency with our presence. We need to bring a good product and incorporate it with a marketing strategy.”
Talk is cheap. Selling tickets costs money, too.
WSU 74, Texas-Pan Am 52
Percentages: FG .340, FT .619. 3-Point Goals: 5-20, .250 (Urbanus 2-6, Provost 2-7, Gutridge 1-1, Cabrera 0-1, Petty 0-5). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 1 (Cleveland). Turnovers: 15 (Petty 3, Cleveland 2, Provost 2, Gutridge 2, Mierzycki 2, Cabrera, Walker, Hearn, Urbanus). Steals: 4 (Hearn, Mason, Mierzycki, Provost). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .500, FT .500. 3-Point Goals: 10-22, .455 (Aden 4-6, Thompson 2-4, Simon 2-5, Motum 1-1, Capers 1-1, Lodwick 0-5). Team Rebounds: 0. Blocked Shots: 5 (Casto 3, Aden, Thompson). Turnovers: 10 (Casto 4, Moore 2, Lodwick 2, Capers, DiIorio). Steals: 4 (Moore 2, DiIorio, Capers). Technical Fouls: None.
Halftime—WSU 36-24. A—4,382.
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