HONOLULU – Washington State headed for the Hawaiian Islands and the Diamond Head Classic this week wanting to make a statement.
The Cougars made three big ones Thursday, and now they have a chance to make one more.
The most important, as it usually is, was the final result.
Simply stated, WSU held off 15th-ranked Baylor 77-71 before 7,179 in the Stan Sheriff Arena and a national television audience.
But how the Cougars accomplished their first victory over a ranked team this season was a statement in itself.
They squandered a 20-point second-half lead. They trailed 64-61 with just more than 6 minutes left. And then they scored seven consecutive points, got a couple of huge 3-pointers from Klay Thompson and missed nary a free throw in the final minute.
Reggie Moore got the comeback started with a drive. Thompson added a lead-regaining 3-pointer from the corner. Moore buried an 18-footer to cap a 4-minute rally.
After a 3-pointer pulled Baylor within one with 1:40 left, Thompson made his statement, pulling up from 27 feet straightaway and burying a jumper over A.J. Walton with 70 seconds left, giving WSU a four-point lead it didn’t relinquish.
Thompson finished with 20 points on just eight shots, hitting all but one of his six 3-pointers.
“He’s a beyond-NBA type player,” Moore said of Thompson’s long shot. “I knew it was going to go in. He does it in practice all the time.”
The win over the 15th-ranked Bears not only moved WSU’s nonconference record to 10-1 and showed the Cougars can compete with the nation’s elite, it put them into the tournament’s title game Saturday.
Washington State will face last year’s NCAA runner-up Butler, a 67-64 winner over Florida State in the other semifinal, for the championship. The tournament takes a hiatus today as host Hawaii plays in the Hawaii Bowl against Tulsa.
The Cougars frittered away all of a 55-35 lead built with exceptionally accurate shooting – WSU was 21 of 35 from the floor at that point – and a stingy zone defense – Baylor was 11 of 38.
“We played so well early,” WSU coach Ken Bone said, “and then they just kind of deflated us.”
When Faisal Aden, who finished with 13 points, pump-faked a Bear into the air, dribbled twice and nailed a 10-foot jumper with 14:28 remaining, the Cougars had that 55-35 lead.
The Bears’ leading scorer, LaceDarius Dunn had missed his first 10 shots from beyond the arc, the Cougars had misfired on just one second-half shot, and two key Baylor players – point guard Walton and 6-foot-11 freshman standout Perry Jones III – had three fouls apiece.
But there were warning signs.
The Bears (8-2) were dominating the glass en route to 21 offensive rebounds and 32 second-chance points. WSU had foul trouble, with DeAngelo Casto and Thompson each carrying three.
When Thompson picked up his fourth a little more than a minute later, the Bears, a zone-only team in their first nine games, switched to a man-to-man defense and WSU’s offense became stagnant.
Brock Motum scored on a 10-foot jumper with 12:36 left and WSU led 59-41. Thompson was on the bench.
But the Cougars went 6:31 with only Casto’s post layup to show for 10 offensive possessions. Baylor’s Dunn, who finished with 29 points, took over.
After hitting six consecutive freebies, Dunn got in the lane for a 5-footer, cutting WSU’s lead to 59-47, before following up with a 22-footer.
From there, the Bears didn’t miss for 4 minutes and finished off a 23-2 game-turning run, good for a 64-61 lead.
Then the Cougars made their last statement of the night. They rallied, something last year’s team seemed incapable of doing.
“Last year we might have just rolled over and said, ‘Hey, we’ve lost it, we’re done.’ But we persevered and showed a lot of character,” Bone said.