PULLMAN – Ernie Kent almost left one of his players behind for the eight-hour bus ride back to Eugene.
After Washington State University’s Josh Akognon had missed the front end of a one-and-one with 24.9 seconds left and Oregon up by a single point, Oregon’s Ian Crosswhite rebounded the ball, casually flipping it toward a referee on the baseline as if the ball were dead. It wasn’t.
Had the ball skipped out of bounds, the Cougars would have earned possession for another chance at a game-winning bucket. But Oregon’s Aaron Brooks lunged to save the ball, and – while the WSU bench howled that his foot was on the endline – flipped the ball back to a teammate. Seconds later, Oregon’s Maarty Leunen hit two free throws and the Ducks escaped Pullman while the Cougars were left to stew over a 55-52 Pacific-10 Conference loss before 4,109 fans at Friel Court.
“I don’t know if he would have made it out of Pullman. I just don’t know,” Kent said, shaking his head over Crosswhite’s mental gaffe. “Because it aged me 10 years – to not know the situation there where everybody else did know it. That was tough. Luckily for us, Aaron was quick enough to make a great basketball play to throw the ball back inbounds and give ourselves a chance to get a W.”
Coach Dick Bennett had instructed the Cougars to stay back while Akognon attempted the free throw, a move that may have confused Crosswhite into thinking it was a two-shot situation. But Brooks’ heads-up play allowed Oregon to sprint down the court, and WSU couldn’t get a foul to stop the clock until just six ticks were left.
By then, the Cougars’ only option was Thomas Kelati’s desperation 3-pointer, which was blocked out of bounds with less than a second remaining. Another Kelati 3-pointer at the buzzer sailed off course as the Ducks sprinted back toward the locker room.
The loss moves the Cougars (8-7, 3-3) back to .500 in the conference, and they’ll have a full week off before playing Washington in Seattle next Sunday. “They just beat us,” Bennett said, trying to stay upbeat. “Sometimes that happens. It’s not like we gave it away. You can look at missed shots, missed free throws or a turnover here or there. But that just happens in a difficult game.”
The Cougars made plenty of mistakes, but none greater than failing to stop Oregon freshman guard Bryce Taylor, who hit his first six 3-pointers and ended up with a career-best 26 points, nearly half of his team’s offensive production.
The Ducks (11-3, 3-2) freed Taylor with a series of wide screens, a tactic that gave the Cougars fits. “We knew (Taylor) could shoot but with any good shooter, if you get going – he hit his first three shots – you start to feel good,” Kelati said. “I think he scored all 26 of his points without even taking a dribble. It goes to show you what kind of looks he was getting.”
WSU struggled against Oregon’s zone defense, something it knew was coming but had not seen in a Pac-10 game. Jeff Varem, the team’s top scorer in the conference season, was hurt more than anyone else by the 2-3 defense. Varem scored nine points and didn’t have a single tally in the second half.
The Cougars were forced to take 20 3-point attempts because of the nonexistent inside game.
“The best thing we could do was zone (Varem) and keep the ball out of his hands,” Kent said. “We made a decision looking at the shooting percentage, looking at a guy like him that we couldn’t contain, that we needed to zone.
“It got another win for us.”
This was Oregon’s first win under Ernie Kent while scoring less than 60 points. … WSU’s Derrick Low hit two 3-pointers and scored 10 points. … Brooks is the Ducks’ leading scorer, but he finished with just five points, though three of them were the game-winners with 41 seconds to go. Brooks hit a leaning jumper and also notched a free throw after a block was called on Kelati. … Kelati led the Cougars with 15 points.
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