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."