SEATTLE – For everyone trying to figure out this edition of the Washington State Cougars, Sunday night gave you a clearer picture.
When the Cougars are focused, they can compete with the Pac-10’s best.
That picture showed clearly once more at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, as they built a 21-point lead midway through the second half and weathered a furious Washington rally to post the 80-69 upset before a sellout crowd of 10,000.
The win, WSU’s second this season over the Huskies, lifted the Cougars to 18-10 overall but, more importantly, 8-8 in conference play. That puts them alone in sixth place – the final spot that earns a day off at the Pac-10 tournament – going into the season’s final week.
All this a week after a disappointing 71-69 loss at last-place Arizona State.
“You could see it in some people’s eyes, the focus was there,” said post DeAngelo Casto, who battled UW’s twin towers of Matthew Bryan-Amaning (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Aziz N’Diaye (6 and 9) to a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“We really got focused,” said point guard Reggie Moore, who added 10 points and four assists while turning the ball over only twice in 36 pressure-filled minutes matched up with UW’s pesky guards – and his friends – Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton.
“We sat down as a team (this week) and really got our goals together,” Moore continued. “Really got our mind set.”
Moore said the refocus was forced by the ASU defeat. The players talked among themselves, they talked with the coaches and on Friday they listened to baseball coach Donnie Marbut for 50 minutes, a different voice that helped them focus, Marcus Capers said.
It all seemed to work as WSU handed the Huskies their first home defeat after 13 wins.
“To compete in this building, you really have to be locked in and focused,” said coach Ken Bone, who should know, having served here as an assistant. “And I think our guys were.”
Maybe too much early, Bone admitted, as both teams struggled in the first half, combining to miss 45 shots, turn the ball over 19 times and give up 20 offensive rebounds – 14 grabbed by UW.
The result was a 24-17 Washington State lead, the Huskies’ total – built on 22.2 percent shooting –a halftime low for a Lorenzo Romar-coached UW team.
Part of the UW troubles could be traced to the Cougars’ switching defense, playing zone after their made baskets and man-to-man other possessions.
“You just didn’t see (the zone) because we weren’t making any baskets,” Bone said of the first half.
But the second half was different. More of an up-and-down, take-the-first-good-shot type game. And many of them went in, first for the Cougars, who scored 31 points in the first 9 minutes, 14 seconds after halftime, all the time limiting UW to one offensive rebound.
Klay Thompson had 10 of those (en route to a game-high 26), but the Abe Lodwick, Brock Motum and Casto also chipped in. So did Romar, who picked up a technical after showing his disgust at a Casto “and-one” drive 3 minutes into the second half.
When Moore rose up and buried a 23-footer 5 minutes later, WSU led 55-34. It was the high-water mark.
At that point, UW was 3 of 20 from beyond the arc. The Huskies (19-9, 10-6 in the Pac-10) then hit five of their last seven. And the lead dwindled to six, 65-59, after Overton hit one of two free throws with 4:06 remaining.
The Hec Ed crowd was so loud, Moore couldn’t hear what Bone wanted to do. But, as he went to get the ball from Thompson in the frontcourt, Thomas fouled him from behind
Though he scored 21 points, hit 8 of 16 shots, and had five assists, it might have been Thomas’ most crucial play.
The media time out hit and the Cougars seemed to relax and rally.
Moore hit both free throws – part of a stretch of 25 consecutive WSU nailed on a 32-of-36 night – and the lead was eight again.
Justin Holiday threw the ball out of bounds on the other end, Casto hit two more free throws – he was 8 of 8 while Thompson was 13 of 14 – and the Cougars had weathered the storm.
Not that there wasn’t some drama left.
Overton fouled out with 1:50 left when he picked up a contact technical pushing Capers in the back after Capers’ hard foul on Bryan-Amaning.
Capers was handed a T of his own for responding verbally and, after all the free throws were shot, WSU was up 76-62 en route to its first season sweep of the Huskies since 2008.
“The energy was high,” Casto said of WSU’s play, “and people were into it and focused. We played together as a family today. I thought that was huge.”