PULLMAN – Washington State did some good things on Thursday but not nearly enough of them to avoid a 78-59 pasting by No. 5 Arizona.
Coach Ernie Kent decided that it was finally time for some tough love.
In the locker room, on his postgame radio show and during the postgame press conference Kent called out his team. It might not have been the first time during this season (11-15, 4-10 Pac-12) the coach put the blame for the team’s lack of success on his players, but it was certainly the most explicit.
Earlier in the year, Kent had implored fans to show up to the games, implying that the lack of student support was holding the Cougars back. The students were fine on Thursday.
“It has nothing to do with the energy in that building,” Kent said. “It is your preparation to the game, it is your accountability to your program, to your scholarship, to your student body to have their tails ready to play and locked in mentally, that they do not allow themselves to continue to make the same mistakes we’ve been making the last four or five weeks.”
Earlier in the season, the Wildcats’ superior size, athleticism, skill and future earning potential might have been a reason the Cougars could not pull the upset. Not on Thursday.
“At some point in time losing has to become so painful to them that they change the trajectory of their season and this program,” Kent said. “And I don’t think it’s there yet. If you can walk out of that arena and go home, and a family member or friend rubs your back and has you feel good, if you don’t go home and something burns in your belly and you want to make some changes, it’s going to continue to happen.”
To Kent, this game, and perhaps the season up to this point, has been about his team’s willingness to put in the buy-in and focus required to play as it is coached, to take advantage of the opportunities it is given.
WSU has lost five games in a row and 10 of its last 12. Still, the 19-point loss against a team with legitimate national championship aspirations may not have been the opportune time to make the point.
There was little WSU could do against UA’s size – the Wildcats start two 7-footers. One of those, Lauri Markkanen, also has the advantage of being one of the best athletes on the court no matter who the Wildcats are playing, which he proved with multiple flat-footed dunks over WSU defenders.
Markkanen finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, taking advantage of the space created by leading scorer Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who had 20 points and made 4 of 5 3-pointers.
Iroegbu slashed his way to 17 points to lead the Cougars, while sophomore forward Robert Franks added 11 off the bench.
The Cougars led the Wildcats for 10:15 of the game, relinquishing control when the Wildcats went on a 15-6 run to the end the first half. The Cougars clawed back from a 40-31 halftime deficit, and then were undone by the more athletic, bigger and more talented Wildcats.
But WSU has hung around with many good teams this year and beaten none. The Cougars will have chances to sweep Arizona State and Washington in its next two games, and then will travel to Los Angeles to face UCLA and USC.
A coach who has for the most part shielded his team from criticism for most of the season decided to level some of his own.
“Either get on board or get the hell out of the way,” he said.
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