PULLMAN – Given what was at stake Thursday night in Beasley Coliseum, it was surprising that one team came out flat and uninspired, their coach bemoaning the lack of effort.
Yes, even to coach Kevin O’Neill, the USC Trojans didn’t look ready to play.
And Washington State made them pay, building a 17-point first-half lead, and surviving a barrage of second-half 3-pointers by executing down the stretch for a crucial 85-77 Pac-10 Conference victory.
The list of WSU contributors was long – the Cougars played 11 – but the three stars were obvious to the 7,126 at Friel Court.
DeAngelo Casto banged around with Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson for 32 minutes and finished with 24 points (on 10-of-11 shooting) and 10 rebounds, his sixth double-double this season and 13th of his career.
Klay Thompson did even more than usual, helping with the ball-handling duties when point guard Reggie Moore went down with a sprained ankle less than 9 minutes in, by surviving the physical punishment of Marcus Simmons’ defense for 22 points, five rebounds, three assists and just one turnover in 39 minutes.
And Faisal Aden, who played 35 minutes, contributed 20 points, five rebounds and two assists – and one big strip of Vucevic for a late layup when USC could have pulled within three.
“I liked the energy they came out with early in the game and I thought, for most of the 40 minutes, we played really hard,” WSU coach Ken Bone said.
And for most of them, they played without Moore.
The sophomore, who played one of his better games of the year in last Sunday’s win over Washington, came down awkwardly after a jumper, fell to the floor, grabbed his right ankle and hopped to the bench.
“It’s in a boot and I don’t like to see that,” said Bone afterward of Moore, who watched the second half from the bench in the boot. “Other than that, I know nothing.”
The Cougars led at that point 14-7 en route to leads of 18-7, 32-19 and, with 45 seconds before the half, 41-24.
“We didn’t play with very good energy,” an obviously frustrated O’Neill said.
Frustrated because his team had won four consecutive conference games to pull into fourth and put itself in the NCAA bubble talk, albeit on the fringes. Frustrated because a win would have ensured USC would not have to play next Wednesday in the first-round of the Pac-10 tournament at Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
But thanks to Oregon’s 73-53 loss at Arizona State and WSU’s win, it is the Cougars (9-8 in conference, 19-10 overall) who earned the rest. The Oregon loss handed USC (9-8, 17-13) its day off, though seeding will be decided by Saturday’s games.
“Everybody would like to avoid that game,” Bone said. “Everybody goes into the conference tournament hoping to win it. And it’s easier to win three games than four.”
WSU has won two crucial games in a row, but this one looked a bit questionable in the second half, despite the big early lead.
Though USC seemed to have more energy after halftime (“We played hard,” O’Neill said, “we didn’t play hard in the first half.”), the Cougars still led 53-37 with 13:50 left after four consecutive points from Casto.
But Maurice Jones (16 points) and Donte Smith (14) started pouring in 3-pointers. At one point the Trojans hit four consecutive long-range shots, the last, by Jones, pulling them within one, 63-62, for the second – and final – time.
But Casto, who seems to play his best games against the best competition – Vucevic, the Pac-10 leader in rebounding and third in scoring, finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds – answered with an and-one off an Abe Lodwick feed and followed that with a dunk to push the lead back to six, 68-62 with 5:50 left.
“It’s more fun to play someone who is real good, when the competition is high, when the stakes are high,” Casto said. “Those games are always fun to play in.”
“They didn’t have to make field goal the rest of the way, though,” O’Neill said of the end of the game. “They shot 30 free throws (making 23). So when you foul that much and have three guys foul out, it’s very hard to win.”
After Casto’s mini-explosion, USC never got closer than three again as WSU hit its last 11 free throws.
Thompson hit 9 of 10. Marcus Capers added 6 of 8. Casto was 4 of 6 and Aden 3 of 4. USC lost Stepheson, Simmons and Smith to fouls.