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Washington State seemed a little sluggish in the Pac-12 tournament's noon game, while California couldn't have looked more refreshed. The result was another early Pac-12 tournament exit for the Cougars, who have now lost their tournament-opening game six consecutive times. Below is the unedited version of my game story, which takes a look at what went wrong today and what the future holds for WSU and its senior players.
By Jacob Thorpe
LAS VEGAS—Throughout his first season as the Washington State men's basketball coach, Ernie Kent has tried to supplement his players' basketball education with off-the-court lessons and support.
He's helped Jordan Railey navigate the challenges of building a family while practically still a kid, himself, and reunited DaVonté Lacy with certain, estranged parental figures in his life.
One of Kent's common themes in his conferences with players is the transcendence of "generational bondage," the tendency to follow the same mistakes and undesired outcomes of one's predecessors.
It's a lesson the Cougars showed they have yet to learn as they ended their season with an uninspired, 84-59 loss to California in the team's sixth-consecutive Pac-12 tournament-opening defeat.
There is no reason grounded in skill or talent why WSU (13-18, 7-11 Pac-12) could not beat Cal (18-14, 7-11). The Golden Bears only finished one spot higher in the conference than the Cougars, and the teams split two close games during the regular season.
Yet at the neutral site of the MGM Grand Arena, on a court where neither team had ever won, the Cougars appeared unable to compete from the opening tip, giving up a third-chance 3-pointer after easy rebounds twice bounced off Josh Hawkinson – the Pac-12's leading rebounder's – hands.
"I thought there were several opportunities that we could have grabbed rebounds," Kent said. "We were kind or bumbling into each other a little bit so I don't know if that's nerves or whatever."
The first half ended when the Cougars gave up an offensive rebound following Sam Singer's missed free throw and Jabari Bird drained a 3-pointer to give Cal a 37-26 lead.
The second half more uninspired play from the Cougars, who were never able to stop Cal's shooters on the perimeter or post David Kravish inside. Kravish had a career-high 25 points and the Golden Bears made 8 of 12 3-point attempts.
There was even a stretch spanning both halves in which Cal made 14 of 15 shot attempts.
"I think they had more energy and effort and at certain times they wanted it more than us," Lacy said. "They chased down loose balls, dived hard and I think at the end of the day the team that wanted it more won."
All that offense made it impossible for the Cougars to ignite their secondary-break following missed shots and maybe establish some offensive rhythm with some easy buckets.
"I think the key to Washington State, they do a tremendous job of running in transition offensively, "Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I thought we really set the tone there to try to slow those guys down. They get out in transition, it could be a long night for you."
The loss is a sour ending to the season since the Cougars have spent the last couple weeks on the upswing, beating a Colorado team that butchered WSU in Boulder earlier in the year and playing to-the-wire games against UCLA and Utah, the No. 4 and No. 3 teams in the conference, respectively.
And it ends the career of DaVonté Lacy, who was held to single-digits for just the fifth time this season with nine points on Wednesday, but ends his career as the No. 5 scorer in school history with 1,548 points.
Lacy considered transferring during the offseason and playing his senior year for a more nationally prominent program. But he returned to school and, along with fellow seniors Dexter Kernich-Drew and Railey, led the Cougars to as many Pac-12 wins as their previous two seasons combined.
"I told them that this program, and me and my staff, will forever be indebted to what they did for us this year," Kent said. "Because they did a lot behind the scenes by allowing themselves to be transparent and showing their strength of character, because it's outstanding."
The Portsmouth Invitational has already extended an invite to Lacy, who said after the game that he will participate in the annual showcase of college seniors to more than one hundred NBA scouts. Railey has expressed a desire to pursuit a professional career overseas, possibly in France or Italy.
And the returning players will come back next season and try to build on what the seniors built, and once again to break WSU's long habit of promptly losing in the Pac-12 tournament.
A pair of sophomores, Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu, will surely be the team's best players next season. Hawkinson, earner of the Pac-12's Most Improved Player honor, added to his school-record with his 20th double-double this season, while Iroegbu was the team's leading scorer with 17 points.
"It's nothing but up from here, man," Lacy said. "I think this is probably going to be (Kent's) worst season … It's going to be cool to watch them mature."
Washington State coach Ernie Kent joined Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson to address the media following WSU's loss to California. Below is a transcript of what they said.
Ernie Kent opening statement:
First of all, I want to talk about Cal because I thought they did a really excellent job in the game. Shooting, they shot the ball extremely well from the 3 and I thought (David) Kravish was just spectacular with his play inside. We didn't have a lot of answers in there for him and had a difficult time defending the perimeter as well, too, which is a problem we've had off and on, obviously all year.
I also want to say, when I took over this program 11 months ago, I saw a group of young men that lacked a lot of confidence. I saw a group of young men that have been through so much the last two years and it's a testament to their character that they have been just phenomenal in terms of allowing us to coach them, handling themselves both on the floor and off the floor. The travel, handling themselves in airports and hotels, it's just a really special group to be around. Their record may not reflect it but they had a lot of victories this year just in terms of how much growth took place in our program.
Question: How much did you game plan for David Kravish?
Ernie Kent: He did not hurt us too bad the last two games and we talked about keeping the ball out of his hands and keeping him from touching it so much. I just don't think we did a very good job of that. Once he got rolling and got his confidence, he was very, very difficult to stop. So, I wouldn't say he was the No. 1 focal point, just because their guards are so good – Matthews has been shooting it so well, Tyrone torched us for 21 in the first half, alone, when we played them last – but it was certainly a focal point to try to limit his touches.
Q: Were you surprised at their early advantage in hustle plays?
EK: The surprise wasn't so much the hustle points, it was the hustle points that we gave up to them. I thought there were several opportunities that we could have grabbed rebounds, we were kind or bumbling into each other a little bit so I don't know if that's nerves or whatever. I didn't think we got off to a great start to the game and consequently, they had great confidence after the first eight or nine minutes and it was a different Cal team that we had to deal with.
Q: How important was Jabari Bird's performance defending DaVonté Lacy and how did Cal stop he and Josh Hawkinson?
EK: I thought they did a really good job out on the perimeter with using their athletic guards to switch. It took us out of some things. I think for us, when we defend and we have energy at that end of the floor we can get out and run and get some easy buckets. They eliminated a lot of that and we lost the offensive rebounds and gave up easy putbacks. It's hard to run on a team when they're scoring; they shoot 67 percent from 3 and Kravish is having the game he had, there's not a lot of transition opportunities for us, which doesn't allow DaVonté to get out and run and create some opportunities to get easy buckets. Everything became a half-court game and they were pretty good defensively, taking some things away from us.
Q: Question for Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson, since you will both be back next year can you talk about the team's development this year?
Ike Iroegbu: This year was hard coming off what we had last year and when we first met coach Kent he talked about how we were going to play fast and I felt like we did that, for the most part, this year. And me and Josh, we underclassmen I feel like we learned a lot from our three seniors: Jordan (Railey, Dex(ter Kernich-Drew) and DaVonté. The led us, for the most part. They did a great job of teaching us how to act on and off the court and coach Kent instilled confidence in us that we hadn't seen before so I appreciate everyone that was around us and can't wait until next year.
Josh Hawkinson: Pretty much the same thing, what he said. We've been working a lot as a unit, and growing over this past year, and we didn't want to end it this way for our seniors, Dex, Vonté and Jordan, but I think we've got a good group of guys coming back to make a strong run next year.
Q: Why wasn't Jordan able to continue his strong play in the second half?
EK: A big thing with Jordan, as you know, is confidence. I thought – they started the game with a small lineup, so we instantly went inside and I thought he got off to a great start to the game, probably had a couple more buckets that he could have scored that would have really helped his confidence.
The foul trouble really knocked him out of rhythm, I thought, because he was really starting to find his rhythm in the game and he picked up the second quick foul and consequently picked up the third foul, too, in the second half. So I thought they had a big effect on his confidence in the second half.
Q: What's your message to your three seniors?
EK: A couple things. I told them every team in the country, when it's all sad and done there's only one champion at the end of the year and everyone else feels like us. Because when your season ends it's an abrupt end to everything. The emotions and all that stuff. For those three seniors, however, they need to really take some time and stop and reflect in terms of how much growth and development happened to them in their lives.
Because, if you knew each one of their individual stories, they are already a success in their lives for being here and handling themselves because those are some strong character men down there that did a tremendous job of laying and outstanding foundation. So I told them that this program, and me and my staff, will forever be indebted to what they did for us this year. Because they did a lot behind the scenes by allowing themselves to be transparent and showing their strength of character, because it's outstanding.
Q: What do you think about Lacy's career coming to an end?
EK: Specifically you want them to play again, particularly those seniors, you want them to play as much as possible because he's a player – in this day and age, I've said this several times. With young people, there were 400 transfers in Division I college basketball last year, 500 last year, it's on course to be 600 this year and when you have a player that's your best player, one of the better players in the conference, he did not jump schools. So many players want to jump schools because they can have success more and have an opportunity to get to the NBA quicker, whatever. He stayed. He stayed at his school, he was true to his school and if anybody deserved to have some success, it was DaVonté Lacy.
For me, part of the emotion you saw was a young man who loved his teammates and loved his college experience and it was very difficult to see that come to an end. That, to me, epitomizes what the college student-athlete should be about: staying, staying loyal, staying true to his home and trying to build this basketball program, and when he had an opportunity to leave he did not do it.
Q: What are your thoughts on the program moving forward?
EK: You know, I was elated the day that Bill Moos gave me an opportunity to come back and work for him and get back into coaching. Every day, even through the adversity, every day has been a good day because even through your losses, even through the adversity of coming back, your basketball program was constantly learning and growing and getting better.
With the year that DaVonté Lacy had, and Jordan and Dex, their growth shows me again that relationships are extremely important at this level. To see these guys next to me, how much they've developed this year – Ike did a fabulous job for us, the game he had the last game of the season was just an incredible game and he's had some wonderful moments. For Josh to lead this conference in rebounding, to have the second-biggest turnaround in college basketball in terms of most-improved (points per game), I can't tell you how happy and how proud I am of those two. Because, the three seniors led us to this point and they left this program in tremendous hands with Ike, Josh and Junior Longrus is another. Those are going to be three very vocal, outstanding seniors that again, are on track academically, are your hardest workers, they're going to be the guys we call on next year and I think we have great, great leadership coming down the road.
Q: Josh, where do you take your game this offseason?
JH: I definitely feel I need to improve defensively, guarding smaller players out on the perimeter that I need to switch out on. Also, getting stronger and getting better position on the post, fronting, not letting them get the ball. Because I feel like Kravish kind of exposed our posts, tonight, definitely. Continue to get quicker and improve my shot, extend it out to 3-point range as well.
Washington State earned a 9-seed in next week's Pac-12 tournament and a noon matchup on Wednesday against 8-seeded California.
The Cougars split their matchups with the Golden Bears this season, winning 69-66 in Berkeley but falling 76-67 in Pullman. The winner of that game will face No. 1 Arizona, which beat WSU 86-59 in the teams' only contest this season.
Top-seeded Arizona, second-seeded Oregon, third-seeded Utah and fourth-seeded UCLA all have first-round byes. The Utes gave up a two-seed by losing to 11th-seeded Washington on Saturday.
The Huskies will face Stanford on Wednesday for the right to a rematch against the Utes while USC and Arizona State will play to face UCLA on Thursday and 10th-seeded Colorado will take on 7-seed Oregon State with the winner playing the Ducks.
All the matchups and times are available here.
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