PULLMAN – It was just another friendly game between two schools some 80 miles apart.
Game No. 144 in a rivalry that stretches back more than 100 years.
But it turned out to be more than that. At least in DeAngelo Casto’s mind.
“I think that defined our season,” Washington State’s 6-foot-8 junior center said of last year’s 74-69 defeat at then 17th-ranked Gonzaga. “We managed to always find a way to not finish games.”
Last year the Cougars broke in front, led by 12 with 10 minutes, 32 seconds left and watched as the Bulldogs roared back behind Elias Harris and Matt Bouldin.
It was WSU’s first loss of the season, but it would be followed by more. And it wouldn’t be the last time the Cougars, who finished 16-15 overall and, at 6-12, last in the Pac-10, would surrender large second-half leads.
Casto, from Spokane, has yet to experience a win over the Zags – GU is 9-2 in the last 11 meetings and has won the last two – but he feels tonight’s Beasley Coliseum battle could be a turning point in the series and the Cougars’ fortunes.
“That’s the difference between this year and last,” he said. “We’re older and mature, yeah, but the ability to close a game is there. We didn’t die against K-State.”
But they didn’t win, either.
“It speaks volumes for our team, because we didn’t play well,” Casto said. “We didn’t shoot well, but we were in it. … But we do have to prove we can win ballgames at the end.”
It’s also a different Zags team this season. Playing their usual tough nonconference schedule, the Bulldogs are 4-3 and unranked, the first time that’s been the case heading into the WSU game since the 2002-03 season.
WSU coach Ken Bone doesn’t see a drop off.
“I still see a really good team,” he said.
The Zags’ losses have come to Illinois, San Diego State and Kansas State, all ranked in the top 16. It was the latter of those teams, K-State, that handed WSU its first defeat this season, 63-58 last Friday night. The nature of that defeat impressed GU coach Mark Few.
“They’re obviously a veteran team and they have most of the pieces back,” said Few, whose team lost to Kansas State 81-64 in Kansas City. “They’re very confident, because of the schedule they’ve played they’re off to a great start. They played K-State tough. They’re going to be a formidable foe, especially in that environment.”
WSU drew 11,671 for the game with the Wildcats and expect a similar crowd tonight. But the folks in the building that really worry Few are WSU’s outside shooters, Klay Thompson, Faisal Aden and Reggie Moore, who played for the first time this season in the K-State game.
“They can really shoot it, they’re seeing a big rim,” Few said. “With Moore back, they can spread you out and bounce it at you.”
Moore, playing with a splint to protect a fractured scaphoid bone in his left wrist, came off the bench against K-State, played 27 minutes, scored 10 points and had three assists.
Bone said the sophomore will move into the starting lineup tonight, with Aden taking over the sixth-man role envisioned before the season began.
Thompson (21.2 points per game) and Aden (18.7) have combined to shoot 36 percent from beyond the arc, a worry for the Bulldogs after yielding a dozen 3-pointers in last Saturday’s 73-61 loss to Illinois.
“We know that the 3-point game is what we need to work on,” center Rob Sacre said. “We need to stop the 3-point game because that’s what is killing us in these losses.”
The Zags have their 3-point threat in Steven Gray. The 6-5 senior guard is averaging 20 points per game and shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc.
Casto knows he will have his hands full with the 7-foot Sacre (12.1 points, 7.1 rebounds), Harris and the rest of the front court.
“They’re all hard-nosed fighters,” he said.
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