PULLMAN – This sort of thing was supposed to be history when football season ended.
OK, Washington State didn’t get beat by 60 on Wednesday night.
It only seemed like that much.
Actually, it seemed like more.
Maybe it’s because the 74-52 beatdown the Gonzaga Bulldogs put on the Cougars was the worst home court defeat in the Bennett era – Tony or Dick – at Wazzu. Other than the NCAA tournament loss to North Carolina last March, it was twice as big – give or take a couple of points – as any they’ve suffered at any venue during the Camelot of the past two seasons.
Maybe it’s because even some of the adoring students who lined up for seats before sunrise Wednesday were so dispirited by the turn of events that they started sniping at their own from the stands.
Or maybe it was the fact that the Cougs were done in the way they prefer to do unto.
The Cougars have countless questions to answer at this point, the Zags only one.
How good are they really?
“As good as everyone says we are,” said forward Josh Heytvelt.
At the moment, the consensus is fourth in the country, but that almost seemed like a short sell this night.
“I think the Zags are real good,” said WSU guard Taylor Rochestie. “We’ve played a couple of top-5 caliber teams the past couple of years and they’re deserving of their ranking. They’re a great team – and I don’t think we’re as bad as we showed. But they took us out of our game offensively and defensively.”
In that respect, it was one of the better tricks the Zags have concocted in their decade-old magic show, for no opposing program is usually so true to its approach and principles as coach Tony Bennett’s Cougars.
And then in a blink just after halftime, they went from hanging tough to completely disarmed.
It is tempting to say that was the sole work of Gonzaga point guard Jeremy Pargo, and a look at the play-by-play would suggest as much. Driving layup. Alley-oop pass for a dunk. Three-pointer from the corner. Steal. Another oop for a hoop.
All in a span of 76 seconds.
And Pargo’s fingerprints have been all over this 7-0 Gonzaga start that includes victories over five marquee programs.
“He’s attacking so much more intelligently this year,” said Zags coach Mark Few, “and he has such a better feel for how the game is going.”
But this was a true ensemble effort, and as much as some are going to point to Gonzaga’s 10-of-15 shooting to start the second half, the catalyst came on the defensive end. Who would have expected to say that given Wazzu’s defensive reputation?
“We got our hands going,” said Few. “This is a long team. We have to use our length. We wanted to create turnovers (with the press). We also wanted to see if we could only have to defend in the half court for 20 or 22 seconds. And because we’re long, that’s something we can do well.”
Yes, the Cougars have struggled on offense already this season, but never quite like this. Take away the last five minutes once the lead reached 33, and Wazzu shot just 28 percent – or just about what they held Gonzaga to a year ago.
One Cougar couldn’t miss – but center Aron Baynes also couldn’t get the ball. He had maybe a half-dozen touches in the post all night.
“I don’t even know if he’s a big part of their offense anymore,” said Heytvelt, who also made things tough on Baynes on other end by roaming outside for most of his 22 points. “It didn’t even seem like they were trying to give him the ball. I don’t know if I’m going to credit my defense.”
Rochestie acknowledged as much.
“I played pretty selfish basketball tonight,” said the senior guard, whose shooting struggles continued with a 2-of-11 night – but also didn’t have an assist. “When things are not going right, you rely on your teammates more, not less. You can make the game easier when you throw it in and not try to do it yourself.”
But it wasn’t ever going to be as easy as the Zags made it look, and Few acknowledged that those first 12 minutes of the second half “were as good as we’ve played here in quite a while.”
And Bennett acknowledged that the Cougars are due for some introspection, especially the four veterans in the starting lineup.
“They’ve played in a lot of big games and been in tough settings,” Bennett said. “That was disappointing because I expected more from them. I hold them to a higher standard than that. Hey, look, the guys aren’t here who were here last year and they’ve got to come to grips with that. It’s a little tougher when you have the bull’s-eye on your chest and we’ve got to figure out ways to deal with that.”
It’s a lesson long-ago learned at Gonzaga – and now passed on.
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