PULLMAN – Mention Oklahoma State to a certain generation of Washington State basketball players and they shudder a bit.
Robbie Cowgill, Kyle Weaver, Daven Harmeling, they all look back at their freshman-year matchup in Stillwater as a learning point in a career that included two NCAA tournament appearances.
The final that early December day in 2004 was 81-29, OSU. It wasn’t that close.
Washington State didn’t score in the first 9 minutes, 24 seconds – at one point head coach Dick Bennett turned to son Tony and asked, “Are we ever going to score?” – and trailed 29-2 with about 4 minutes left in the half.
That’s when Josh Akognon hit a 3-pointer and jumped up and down like “he just won the NCAA title,” WSU assistant Ben Johnson said.
It isn’t the same Oklahoma State team – in ranking (those Cowboys were sixth in the nation, this group is 20-13 and finished in the middle of the Big 12) or leadership (Travis Ford has replaced Eddie Sutton as coach) – that will invade Beasley Coliseum tonight for a National Invitation Tournament second-round game.
But the name on the front of the jersey does still mean something to those who remember.
“That was back in the day when I heard them tell stories about that game,” said redshirt junior Abe Lodwick, the lone link from this 20-12 WSU team and that group. “It definitely was a source of motivation for guys who know about it. Our weight coach (David Lang) reminded us of it today.
“The fans were chanting ‘thanks for practice’ as they were leaving the court. There’s a little sense of, hopefully, we can right that wrong.”
Righting a wrong seems to be important to Washington State, and has been since the Cougars’ unexplainable 71-69 loss at Arizona State a month ago.
“Really, I feel ever since that Arizona trip, we’ve played as good of basketball as we’ve played all year,” coach Ken Bone said. “I feel good about the way the guys are playing. We haven’t been perfect, but we’re playing well.”
After the loss at ASU, the Cougars faced their toughest test of the season. At Washington. With a lot on the line. They won, 80-69. It was a turning point, Klay Thompson said.
“That game gave us our confidence back,” he said. “After that win, we knew we could beat anybody in the conference.”
Since ASU, the Cougars are 3-2, with their losses in overtime to UCLA without Thompson and Reggie Moore and to UW by two at the Pac-10 tournament.
And then the NCAA didn’t call the Cougars’ name.
“We’re really bitter we didn’t get into the NCAA tournament because, geez, because there were a lot of teams we were much better than,” Thompson said. “So this is kind of our chance to prove ourselves, the NIT.”
The NIT seems to be a good place to prove it.
With the 85-74 first-round win over Long Beach State, the Cougars are 11-2 against non-conference foes this season and 21-4 in Bone’s two seasons.
“We’re a completely different kind of animal than they usually face, and the same with them (for us),” Lodwick said of non-Pac-10 games. “It’s new for both of us and it’s a welcome challenge.”
One Lodwick thinks the Cougars are ready for.
“We’re prepared well for them, we follow the game plan,” he said of non-league games. “The coaches do a good job setting us up for success. And a lot of the teams we’ve played, they might overlook us, thinking the Pac-10 is weak.
“I think that’s a myth, but we enjoy playing out of conference, because it shows how strong the Pac-10 is.”
And this out-of-conference opponent has a special significance to some.
“I’m jealous,” Harmeling said Sunday. “I always hoped we would get Oklahoma State again in some preseason tournament or the NCAAs or something. It didn’t work out that way.
“(WSU winning) would make amends a little bit for what happened in terms of the direction our program has gone since that last game.”