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WSU Men's Basketball

John Blanchette: Cougars’ positive buzz turns to sting of defeat

Washington State head coach Ernie Kent reacts against Kansas State during the first half Wednesday at the Arena. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Hey, remember when Washington State was the buzz of the West in college basketball?

Oh, right that was Arizona State. Still is.

But the Cougars were in the conversation for a while – rocking a 6-0 start, knocking Saint Mary’s out of the Top 25 and shocking the world by winning the Wooden Legacy tournament, which could have put some bookies out of business had anyone a notion to bet on Wazzu.

And it lasted about as long as it took to shake Thanksgiving reflux.

Since then, the Cougars – well, here’s the Ernie Kent take:

“They were very pleased with themselves and they kind of forgot how hard they had to play to do it,” WSU’s head coach said. “They went down there with something prove. Then they came how and didn’t realize, ‘We’ve got to do this again.’ ”

And again and again and again. It’s called a season.

But these Cougs – to this point anyway – are all about figuring things out. In nearly every game, it seems to take an entire half or more – not a particularly admirable habit – but then they can show their work and sometimes even come up with the right answer.

Just not Wednesday night.

Oh, their second-half work against Kansas State was exemplary, wiping out a 17-point Wildcats lead. Then the Cougs reverted to their first-half selves in the final minutes and lost a painful 68-65 decision in front of a surprisingly riled up 4,165 witnesses.

So somebody in Spokane obviously took notice when the Cougs were in their November glory, and they were rewarded with an entertaining night out.

Plus a folk hero.

Carter Skaggs is a Kent scoop off the recruiting trail, not a coup necessarily in the sense that no other Division I team bothered to offer a scholarship. On Wednesday, he’d been on the floor for all of 35 seconds when he rifled in a 3-pointer from right corner.

In the second half, it was even more ridiculous. When Kent gave him a breather – he played the last 13 minutes of the first half, then started the second – he returned and hoisted in a 3 within 6 seconds.

Skaggs did this earlier in the season against Seattle University, too, but that game tape must have got lost in delivery to the K-State basketball office in the Christmas rush.

Now, if Skaggs doesn’t appear to have any other purpose on the floor, he doesn’t really need one if he can go 6 of 10 from the arc and carry the night with 24 points. But he did put the ball on the floor a couple of times to get to the hole, too.

“I don’t want to be known as a one-trick pony,” he said.

Hey, if it’s the right trick, people will keep paying good money to watch.

Even Skaggs’ air balls were heroic. When he missed badly from the corner with 3:22 to play, teammate Malachi Flynn was there underneath the hoop to collect the ball and lay it in for a 61-56 lead.

Which happened to be the last field goal the Cougars made until Flynn was given uncontested leave for a runner at the buzzer, the outcome decided.

So it was a case of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and then handing it back.

“It sucks,” Skaggs admitted. “At the end of the day, it came down to toughness plays – offensive rebounds, layups. You’ve got to make the plays at the end of the game.”

Kent echoed that notion, noting that “There were probably 10 plays in the last 3 minutes that could have closed the game out for us – we made two of them, they made eight.”

First it was stops – after Flynn’s 3 that gave WSU a 57-49 lead with 7:48 to go, the Wildcats scored on 10 of 14 trips down the floor. Then it was choices – clinging to a one-point lead, Flynn turned the ball over, then had an ill-advised 3-point jack with a hand in his face.

For a team picked to finish last in the Pac-12, the Cougs could have had another nice bauble in the building program, though Kansas State did not exactly play like an NCAA Tournament team with three starters back – until it had to.

So this will probably happen to the Cougars a few times in the Pac-12 campaign, too. But maybe they’ll pick off a few they shouldn’t.

“This game, like the UTEP game, are microcosms of your season – almost a season within the game,” Kent said. “You have some adversity, you learn about yourself, you fight through it, you come back, you toughen up, you take a lead, you’re gritty, you’re tough, you lose a lead.

“It’s like a season. You’re 6-0, you lose three in a row, you come back. Over the course of a year, teams do grow.”

And maybe get people talking. Sometimes, that’s a start.