PULLMAN – The Washington State Cougars took another step toward New York on Monday night, and they didn’t have to leave Beasley Coliseum.
And they won’t have to.
The Cougars’ 74-64 National Invitation Tournament victory over Oklahoma State came in front of 5,201 and left WSU (21-12) just one win away from the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve got to be playing at our best or, if not, close to it,” Klay Thompson said, “because a lot of us know you can never go back, so we are trying to make the most of it. We know we have the ability to get to New York and win this tournament.
“We’re playing like it.”
They face their final hurdle to a Big Apple trip Wednesday night when Northwestern (20-13) comes to Pullman for an 8p.m. contest.
“It’s great to be home one more game,” WSU coach Ken Bone said.
The Cougars earned their 18th home game of 2010-11 thanks to the 21 points of Thompson, another 17 from Brock Motum and timely contributions from just about everyone else.
And a defense that took away Oklahoma State’s two top scorers – Marshall Moses and Keiton Page – for most of the game.
“I thought we had a great first half defensively,” Bone said. “I was impressed with our guys’ energy, focus and effort. And I thought our defense the second half was pretty good, better than it’s been the last three or four games.”
OSU, which finishes 20-14, couldn’t stop Thompson.
The Cowboys tried double-teaming Thompson on the perimeter early. He had 14 first-half points as WSU took a 38-29 edge into the locker room.
The first three were the most impressive, as Thompson pulled up in transition from the “F” in the Friel Court logo, some 30 feet from the basket, and nailed a jumper. That helped WSU jump out to the nine-point lead.
But Oklahoma State settled down and clawed back in it, leading 19-17. That, however, was the Cowboys’ last lead.
With the OSU defense so focused on Thompson, other Cougars found open spots.
“I was very impressed how well this Washington State team, how well they play off Klay Thompson,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “How they play off each other. One thing we talked about was don’t let them get the easy shots under the basket, guys cutting. And that’s all they did.”
Most notable in that regard was Motum, who came off the bench to score eight points in the final 5:12 before intermission and had 10 at the half.
“It opened up some possessions,” Bone said of the Cowboys’ focus on Thompson, “but I thought they did a good job on Klay.”
The Cowboys did it mainly without their big horse, the 6-7, 255-pound Moses, who was saddled with two fouls early and came back just before half to pick up his third. He fouled out with 1:54 remaining and finished with two points, 12.5 under his average.
Without their leading scorer, the Cowboys offense stalled. And WSU built a lead that reached 14 points.
Page, who came in averaging 13.3 points a game, finished with eight, but had just three at halftime and was a non-factor – even clanging two second half free throws after missing just 14 all season and shooting better than 90 percent. The 5-9 junior finished just 3 of 13 from the field.
Matt Pilgrim took up some of the slack, with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but Washington State held the Cowboys to 40.7 percent shooting, including 21.1 from beyond the arc.
Now the Cougars will face Northwestern with a chance to go further in the NIT than ever before.
“We understand, 48 hours from now, we are either done for the year or we’re headed to New York,” Bone said.