As Tony Bennett saw it, Washington State had enough open shots to win – and win big. Maybe, he said, they were too open at times. But he did admit, as he was talking about USC throwing multiple defenses at the Cougars early, the basic Trojan game plan was sound. Clog the middle, take away inside shots for Aron Baynes, shadow Taylor Rochestie and Klay Thompson and make the other Cougars beat them. They couldn't. On the link you'll find my unedited game story along with some notes. Read on.
• Here's the long version of the game story ...
PULLMAN – It was a matter of perception.
As he made his way up the Beasley Coliseum tunnel Saturday afternoon following his team's 46-44 comeback win over Washington State, a USC reserve jumped on a teammate and said, "We stole one again."
Later, as WSU's Taylor Rochestie tried to explain how the Cougars frittered away an eight-point lead in the last 6 minutes before 8,974 at Friel Court, he shrugged his shoulders.
"We definitely had this in our hands and we gave it away," the senior said before shaking his head.
Both were right.
Trailing 38-30 after Klay Thompson's 3-pointer with 6:19 left, the Trojans never stopped attacking the basket, getting to the free-throw line eight times, scoring 11 of their final 16 points from there.
And WSU did everything it could to help, missing 7 of 8 shots, losing a key rebound out of bounds and turning the ball over three times while the game was still in doubt.
"When we got to eight I thought, all right, let's just play," said WSU coach Tony Bennett. "Boy, it just grinded to a halt. That's something we've seen this year."
After Thompson's hoop, USC scored eight consecutive points, tying it at 38 on University of Connecticut transfer Marcus Johnson's three-point play.
Thompson gave WSU the lead back with the last of his 15 points, a 3-pointer from the corner off a set play with 3 minutes left.
Taj Gibson, who had all 10 Trojan points after they trailed 33-25, finally missed inside.
Rochestie had a chance to get some separation, but missed a runner. Daniel Hackett converted two free throws – USC was 19 of 31 on the night; WSU 10 of 10 – and Rochestie, who finished with six points and five assists, turned it over trying to find Thompson in the corner.
Johnson put the Trojans (13-6, 4-3 in the Pac-10) in front for good with a spinning drive in the lane with 50 seconds left. The Cougars didn't score again until Rochestie's 3-pointer at the buzzer for the final margin.
As Bennett said, the Cougars (11-8, 3-4) have had bad first-half stretches, horrendous ones early in the second and tough patches scattered throughout most of their losses, but this was the first time this season they surrendered a seemingly safe lead with so little time left.
And Bennett could pinpoint why.
"The way you get wins is you block out on free throws, you make rhythm open shots, you don't foul down the stretch, you do the things that give you a chance," he said. "That's how you win. When you don't do those things, you won't win. It's as simple as that."
The simplest explanation is the Cougars just couldn't make shots, the entire game in general and down the stretch in particular. They had 14 more shots than the Trojans, but made just one more field goal. Their 27.5 percent shooting (14 of 51) was easily their worst of the season.
Caleb Forrest, who was 8 of 9 for a career-high 19 points against UCLA on Thursday, struggled all night, finishing 1 of 11 from the floor, including misfiring on an open jumper with 32 seconds left with it 42-41.
"When you go 14 of 51 (shooting) you're not going to win too many games," Bennett said. "I don't know if guys were too open. ... I don't know if we could have got it into Aron (Baynes) more. But guys got such open looks."
Baynes was winning his battle with Taj Gibson most of the night, outscoring USC's athletic 6-foot-9 junior 12-5 through the first 32 minutes. But that's what Baynes finished with – on 4 of 7 shooting – while Gibson had seven of USC's final 18 points. Gibson also converted 6 of his last 8 free throws, all in the final 10 minutes.
"The whole night he was trying to carve out some space down there," said Baynes said, who fouled out with 18.4 seconds left. "We just got some calls against us in the end. I don't know what changed but obviously the refs saw something with our defense.
"He made the most of it on the free throws. I think we sent him to the line 10, 12 times. We can't afford to do that against any bigs in the Pac-10. Any player is going to be able to hurt us if we send him to the line that (much) late in the game."
Hackett was at the line even more, hitting 11 of 14 as part of his team-high 14 points.
But it was Gibson, who also grabbed 12 rebounds, who made the plays to keep USC close late. And it was USC coach Tim Floyd who put together a game plan to stymie the Cougars, who came into the game as the Pac-10's second-worst shooting team (43.4 percent).
"He's smart," Bennett said of Floyd, the former University of Idaho coach who won in Beasley Coliseum for the first time in four tries. "His deal was 'we're going to jam this thing up and we're going to make some of the other guys beat us.' We weren't able to do that."
"We were fortunate that (Caleb) Forrest and (Daven) Harmeling didn't shoot to their typical percentages," Floyd said. "They had some open looks; they just didn't go down."
Of that Bennett would agree.
"We just needed a few guys to knock some shots down," he said.
Now the Cougars head on the road for four games, starting Thursday at 17th-ranked Arizona State.
"I challenged them before this game," Bennett said. "I told them this is a game where you can really make a statement. It was an important game, us being 3-3, them being 3-3. A home game."
"Now we'll really find out our character."
NOTES: The 90 points scored between the schools were the fewest in the 106 games in the series. The previous low was 100, when USC won 57-43 in LA in 1981. ... After not playing against UCLA, Harmeling played 29 minutes, most at the small forward, and was 1 of 5 from the floor. His first-half 3-pointer was his first basket in Beasley since the Gonzaga game. ... WSU has made 49 of its last 50 free throws. ... Forrest and Gibson each had three blocked shots, giving Gibson 210 for his career and Forrest eight. ... After WSU had six personal fouls and USC five in the first half, the Cougars were called for 15 after halftime. USC was whistled for another five. In Thursday's loss at Washington, the Trojans shot 17 free throws and UW 40. ... WSU lead 19-18 at the half, the first time the Cougars hadn't scored 20 points in a half since 2005. The Trojans would have had 20, because Gibson's shot at the buzzer was ruled good by official Jim Giron. But after looking at the replay, the shot was waved off. ... USC broke a five-game losing streak to WSU in Pullman and the Trojans did it without leading scorer Dwight Lewis, out with a sprained left ankle. "They did a good job and they did it without their leading scorer, one of their best players," Bennett said. "They really took it at us and drew fouls, which was frustrating."
• That's what we've got for you this evening. We'll be back in the morning with our usual second-day post, which will include links and some other comments from the players and coaches. Till then ...