There isn't a lot of margin of error available for the Washington State Cougars this Pac-10 basketball season. This isn't a group right now that's going to come roaring back from a big deficit to win a game. This isn't a group that can get by without executing for 40 minutes. And this isn't a group that could handle the Washington Huskies on Saturday.
The Huskies played better, especially in the second half. They played more poised, especially in the second half. And they played more physical, all game long. It adds up to a 20-point win. You can read the unedited version of my game story on the link.
PULLMAN – If you haven't been able to beat them, then you might as well emulate them.
At least that seemed to be the University of Washington's motto Saturday during the Huskies 68-48, Pac-10-opening win over Washington State, shattering UW's seven-game losing streak in this rivalry.
The Huskies flew around defensively, forcing tough shots and pounding the Cougars on the glass, 36-20.
And, most importantly, they were patient on offense, getting sound guard play, sharing the ball, passing up decent shots for better ones and finally, in the second half, breaking down the Cougar defense.
"It was on the board before the game, be patient, work the ball and get a good shot," said UW senior Jon Brockman, who won in Pullman for the first time despite being limited to 10 points and four rebounds. "For the most part, besides a couple real quick, ill-advised shots, we did a great job of working it and finding the open man."
Now who does that sound like?
"They've learned from playing us," WSU point guard Taylor Rochestie said.
And the lessons of years past all came together in a game-deciding spurt right after halftime.
The Huskies, 10-3 overall, had gone into the locker room with a 30-28 lead, courtesy of two late Quincy Pondexter free throws.
Rochestie, who broke out of a shooting slump by hitting 6 of 11 shots for a team-high 12 points, lofted a floater over Darrell Gant 17 seconds into the second half to tie it and the sparse crowd of 8,107 in Beasley Coliseum, sans students who are on semester break, actually seemed energized.
But it was an illusion.
The Huskies scored on four consecutive possessions in four different ways – a 3 by freshman Isaiah Thomas, who led all scorers with 19, a post move from Pondexter, Brockman's 17-foot jumper and Justin Dentmon's fastbreak layup.
"A lot of Washington State basketball is about is getting motivated and getting pumped up on the defensive end," said Rochestie, who had two of WSU's four assists and four of its 14 turnovers. "When you're not getting stops, and you're a defensive team, that plays a role offensively.
"When we're getting gritty and getting stops defensively, it fires up our offense and we start breaking teams down."
Which was exactly what UW was doing.
It showed inside, where Huskies forced the ball away from center Aron Baynes by double teaming WSU's leading scorer, limiting the 6-foot-10 senior post to six shots, though he finished with 11 points and four rebounds.
"We knew we needed to get the ball out of his hands," Brockman said. "We have some quick, long athletes on our team and by making them throw those rushed passes, our guys were able to ... make plays on the ball."
And it showed outside, when WSU (8-5) tried to attack off the dribble early in the second half. That played into UW's defensive game plan – and away from the Cougars' strength.
"I think it was real similar to what they've done in the past," Caleb Forrest said of a Husky defense that limited WSU to 36 percent shooting in the second half and 2 of 10 from beyond the arc for the night. In contrast, UW shot 48 percent from the floor against the nation's best field goal percentage defensive team, including 6 of 11 on 3-pointers.
"The big difference is we don't have the same guys as last year who can create for themselves," Forrest continued, alluding to Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, graduated seniors who had a big part in the seven-game winning streak. "We have to start to do things together more as a team and I don't think we've done that as well as we're capable of yet."
Trailing by nine with 17 minutes left, the Cougars tried to crawl back, finally pulling within five (46-41) on a Rochestie drive.
But Nik Koprivica and Klay Thompson collided on defense, freeing Dentmon for 3 – he was perfect on four long-range attempts en route to 17 points, a high for him against WSU.
And when Rochestie's ensuing turnover turned into a Gant follow dunk of Pondexter's miss – one of only three the junior had – the Huskies led by 10 and even WSU coach Tony Bennett knew there was no coming back.
"When those bad stretches come, it's kind of like when it rains, it pours," said Bennett, who suffered his first loss to UW, "and a lot of things go wrong. ... We're not capable of withstanding those types of runs when teams put them (together) against us.
"We can't have big lapses, certainly you're going to have a lapse here or there, but when they add up, (it's) hard for us to claw back. It's hard for us to score. ... It's just when we get down by a lot, some teams have that ability to get it back quicker. It's a little harder for us."
Pondexter, who finished with 16 points and a game-high seven rebounds, presented a matchup problem for WSU, with Daven Harmeling starting on the athletic 6-6 wing before giving way to Koprivica and, at times, 6-8 freshman post DeAngelo Casto.
"I'll tell you what, Justin Dentmon and Quincy Pondexter stepped up big time," said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. "They hit big shots, just played hard and rebounded.
"In that second half, I just thought a couple guys just put us on their shoulders and got us going, while we continued to contest shots and rebounded."
Sound like the last seven games between these two teams. Except this time, the colors were reversed.
• A couple notes that didn't make the game story. The Huskies, who came in hitting 63 percent of their free throws, made 12 of 14, including eight consecutive by Thomas late. ... They also had a 13-5 edge on the offensive glass, but that was inflated late with a couple possessions in which they had five. ... Harmeling had just one shot – a 3-pointer midway through the first half – and played just 15 minutes. He struggled to defend Pondexter. ... Thompson was just 3 of 11 from the floor. ... Rochestie was above 50 percent shooting, but still struggled from long range, missing all three of his attempts. ...
Forrest and Gant were each assessed a technical foul with 1:30 left and there was some chippiness in the post-game handshake line. The Huskies capped their scoring with 52 seconds left on a fastbreak, with Dentmon throwing the ball off the backboard and Pondexter dunking it home. ... Brockman was just 5 of 12 from the floor and was not a huge factor. But he didn't care. "It means a lot (to win)," he said. "It's definitely kind of a relief that I got them. But also it's a great start to the Pac-10 for this team. The last two years we've really struggled at the beginning of the season and it's just been an uphill battle." ...
After Rochestie said UW had learned by how the Cougars had played in the past, he added some thoughts on this year's WSU team. "They did a good job," he said. "They came in with a good game plan. I think our coach gave us a great game plan, but we haven't learned as players what works. In the losses we've had, in the second halves, we've taken a dive, either defensively or offensively with our execution. When we have a game plan that works and a system that works, we need to go out there and execute it." ... Offensively, the Cougars are struggling. "That's a good word to use," Rochestie said when asked if WSU is still trying to find its offensive rhythm. "We just need to find the right rhythm. Some games we're rushing to get a shot too quick and some games we're not taking enough shots. We just need to get more relaxed, get more pose and know when the shots are there, feel confident and knock it down. When things aren't going well, break teams down more and execute better. That's on all of us."
• That's it for tonight. Of course, we'll be back tomorrow. Till then …