PULLMAN – It was a matter of perception.
As he made his way up the Beasley Coliseum tunnel Saturday afternoon following his basketball 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 six 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 three minutes left.
Taj Gibson, who scored the next 10 Trojan points after they trailed 33-25, finally missed inside.
Rochestie 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 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.
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, making 1 of 11 from the floor. He misfired on an open jumper with 32 seconds left and WSU down 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 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 made 6 of 8 free throws in the final 10 minutes.
“The whole night he was trying to carve out some space down there,” said Baynes, 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.”
Hackett was at the line even more, hitting 11 of 14 as part of his team-high 14 points.
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