PULLMAN – Early on in Wednesday night’s National Invitation Tournament first-round game, there was a certain early-season vibe in Beasley Coliseum.
Which was fine with Washington State.
After all, that’s when the Cougars were playing some of their best basketball of the season.
“In postseason, we act like it’s a whole new season, we’re all 0-0 right now,” said Klay Thompson after his 25-point, seven-rebound night helped WSU past Long Beach State, 85-74 and into an NIT second-round game Monday night.
“Yeah, it did remind me of early in the year,” Marcus Capers added, referring to a time when the Cougars, now 20-12, were winning 10 of their first 11 games with defense, crisp passing and a big lift from Faisal Aden.
The defense came early in this one for WSU, as the 4,213 who quietly filed in – the students are on spring break and their usual section was filled with a mix of young and old – clapped appreciatively when the Cougars broke out to a 15-6 lead in the first 10 minutes.
At that point the 49ers were 2 of 19 from the field, having missed all four of their 3-point attempts.
“We really lost some confidence in each other and tried to do too much on our own,” said Long Beach coach Dan Monson, the former Gonzaga mentor who guided the 49ers to the Big West regular-season title.
It’s something Monson had seen as recently as last Saturday.
That was the night Long Beach lost 64-56 to UC Santa Barbara with an NCAA berth on the line in the Big West tournament title game.
“I never dreamed we would play like, offensively, we did on Saturday,” Monson said, “and, to dream it again, it’s really hard to fathom. For anybody who didn’t see the game Saturday, they don’t need to now. That first half is how we looked.”
“They did get some open looks where they just didn’t put the ball in the basket, but our defense was very good the first 20 minutes,” said WSU coach Ken Bone, who didn’t need to point out Long Beach shot 22.6 percent from the field, missed all nine 3-pointers and committed 11 turnovers.
The 36-18 halftime score was enough of a statement.
But the second half?
“Not as good,” Bone said.
With senior wing Greg Plater finally starting to heat up – he hit four second-half, long-range bombs – and Casper Ware, the point guard WSU players compared to Washington’s Isaiah Thomas, finally shaking loose of a foul-saddled Marcus Capers, the 49ers made a game of it.
An 11-3 run got them within 10. A 12-7 stretch got them within five. But that was as close as the Beach would get. With the score 48-43, Thompson and Aden buried back-to-back 3-pointers and the lead was back to 11. The 49ers never got closer than eight again.
Ware, the Big West player of the year, hit 7 of his 10 second-half shots to finish with 25 points.
“The plan was double him off the ball screens,” said Capers of limiting Ware to six shots and four first-half points. “When he picks the ball up, he’s limited.”
Prater added 14 and T.J. Robinson finished with 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
But, like early in the season, Aden came up with big baskets, scoring 16 of his 19 points after halftime, when he was 6 of 8 from the floor.
And DeAngelo Casto, who missed a possible back-breaking dunk with a little more than 4 minutes left, sealed a second-round matchup with Oklahoma State with another dunk, throwing down a Brock Motum feed with 1:43 left, putting WSU ahead, 82-69.
That was one of 17 WSU assists, the most since the first win over Washington in January.
“They made a lot of runs and they’re capable of doing that,” Bone said, “and yet our guys stayed together as a group, did not get down on each other and found a way to manufacture points when they were making runs.”
The win moves the Cougars into the NIT’s second round for the first time since 1996, though the only time they’ve appeared in the oldest postseason tournament since then was 2009.
Monday night Washington State will host third-seeded Oklahoma State, a 71-54 first-round winner over Harvard. With one win, the Cougars know it takes two more to get to New York, home of the NIT’s semifinal and final round.
“We know the competition is going to get better,” Thompson said. “We respect our opponents, but we think we have the talent and the ability to get to Madison Square Garden.”