LOS ANGELES – There seems to be an echo just outside the Galen Center locker room.
Mike Ladd says it first: “They all feel the same right now.”
Later, coach Ken Bone joins the chorus: “It feels like the same.”
And DaVonte Lacy, with a little more clarity: “It sucks, because we’re so close.”
That’s where the Washington State Cougars have been for most of this basketball season. And it’s where they were yet again here against Southern California on Thursday night, leading at halftime before falling, 72-68, after another late-game stretch of empty offensive possessions and not enough defensive stops.
“I see the guys keep trying to do the right things – working hard, right attitude,” Bone said. “I guess that’s just what a 2-8 team looks like that’s trying hard but not winning.”
Only the latter is reflected in the standings, where WSU (11-12, 2-8 Pac-12) now sits tied with Oregon State and Utah in the Pac-12 cellar.
At least the Cougars beat both of those teams. And they certainly looked good enough to beat the Trojans, whom they led, 41-34, after an 8-0 run with 15:46 left in the game.
Then, well, you know.
The first dry spell came and went, and it hurt. But it wasn’t the dagger. WSU didn’t make another field goal until 9:43 remained, a Ladd layup pushing the Cougars ahead 45-41 after the Trojans had drawn within two points.
Lacy, who led all scorers with 21 points, made a 3-pointer with 7:01 remaining to give the Cougars their final lead, 50-49.
So there they were, in a winnable game, one they said felt like theirs. But there was USC guard J.T. Terrell, the latest in what has become a long line of second-half villains. Terrell earned his spot on that list by making three 3-pointers in less than 2 minutes, the last of which was a high-arcing blow from the corner that put USC ahead 56-53 with 5:23 left.
The Trojans didn’t trail again. A near shot-clock violation on WSU’s next possession led Terrell to a coast-to-coast layup. The lead was five. Byron Wesley, who led USC with 20 points, was fouled and made two free throws. The lead was seven.
Even Aaron Fuller, a forward who only played 16 minutes, scored two crucial baskets down the stretch, the first a dump-off layup from point guard Jio Fontan, the second a tip-in that put USC ahead 64-57 with 1:24 left.
Ladd and Lacy made 3-pointers to break a 5-minute stretch without a field goal, and to trim the Trojans’ lead to 64-60 with 1:05 to play.
But Fontan made both his free throws when the Cougars fouled, Ladd missed a 3-pointer and Eric Wise made two free throws to put USC up, 68-60, 31.7 seconds remaining until another agonizing walk back to the locker room.
“This right here continues to haunt us,” Bone said, tapping the stat sheet he was holding, the one that read “39.3” under field-goal percentage. “We’re just not a good scoring team.”
Brock Motum’s tip-in followed by a 3-pointer with 3 seconds left made it interesting. Fontan’s subsequent free throws with 0.2 seconds left made it moot.
That’s the thing with these Cougars. Nobody will ever accuse them of not trying. But effort hasn’t gone far enough.
“If it was desperation, I would say, like, we’re going out there for ourselves and doing our own thing,” Lacy said. “But I feel like we’re still a team. We still come here and work hard every practice. I don’t think I’ve been a part of a team where we work every practice.
“I know this is one of the hardest-working teams, and it’s rough because we’re right there.”
Right there. Still.