TEMPE, Ariz. — Washington State lost to Arizona State by six points Thursday night, and it missed 12 of 21 free throws.
With that in mind, all other explanations — getting outrebounded, falling behind early — just faded away after the 68-62 loss.
“You’re going to slip in certain areas, but (there are) areas that you can not slip on, when you’re standing on the free-throw line and you have a chance to put points up,” said WSU head coach Dick Bennett, searching for appropriate analogies. “It’s like missing extra points in football; you just can’t do that.
“It was probably one of our better efforts. But it’s like a guy coming in from the golf course and saying, ‘Well if only I had made some putts, I would have played par golf.’ Well, putts are part of the game. The same thing with free throws.”
That the Cougars (8-9, 3-5 Pac-10) were less than perfect from the line wasn’t a shock; WSU arrived at Wells Fargo Arena as just a 63.1 percent free-throw shooting team. But that certainly doesn’t include Thomas Kelati, thought of as one of the most dependable free-throw shooters in college basketball.
The senior from Walla Walla missed just one free throw all of last season and was an 82.2 percent shooter for his career. Against the Sun Devils, he made 2 of 7 from the line.
“It’s unbelievable. I’ll take 110 percent of the blame for the game,” a still-stunned Kelati said after the loss. “It’s my senior year, and all year and throughout my whole career I’ve shot it so well from the free-throw line. To go out and not convert, especially down the stretch, is not characteristic of me. I let my team down tonight.”
Lost in the disastrous results from the line was a strong effort in which WSU overcame some of the same bugaboos that had doomed them in previous efforts. The Cougars squandered a hot start by allowing a 24-6 first-half run. But this time, they fought back to within two in the second half, thanks to a 14-3 run of their own.
Arizona State (15-5, 4-4) had a 37-23 edge on the boards, but WSU wasn’t hurt by that either because of 49 percent shooting from the floor and a career-high 24 points from Jeff Varem.
Still, even he missed 4 of 7 free throws, and a baffled coaching staff could do little but sigh as Cougar after Cougar missed 15-foot freebies.
“We did make them earn most of it in the second half,” Bennett said. “I have no real criticisms of our kids in their effort level defensively and I thought they executed OK offensively. We just didn’t get the ones we had to get.”
WSU even played decent defense on All-American Ike Diogu, who went for 15 points and 13 rebounds. Serge Angounou picked up the offensive slack, scoring 18 points on a 7-of -7 night and adding 10 rebounds.
The Cougars had a shot in the final minute when, leading by six, Sun Devils guard Steve Moore turned it over twice on inbounds passes to give the Cougars a chance to pull back within a bucket of the win. WSU converted only one of those two turnovers, and one final layup by ASU sealed the game.
“That’s by far the most frustrating way to lose the game,” Kelati said. “You know you have it, you’ve played so well, you fought back into it, you sustained their runs, but to lose on the free-throw line? A free shot? It really sinks in.”
The ASU student section made light of Bennett’s Sunday incident with the Washington crowd, toward which he made an inappropriate gesture. One student held a sign that said, “Flip us off.” Another sawed the index digit off of a foam finger souvenir and glued it back over one spot, waving it at the WSU bench. … Chris Schlatter, who had seen his playing time reduced heavily, was in the starting lineup and guarded Diogu while in the game. The senior fouled out after 25 minutes.
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