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Colorado eliminates Washington State at Pac-12 men’s tournament when Cougars can’t hold big lead

UPDATED: Wed., March 8, 2017, 10:05 p.m.

Washington State’s Ike Iroegbu  shoots against Colorado’s Xavier Johnson, left, Derrick White, second from left, and Wesley Gordon during the second half Wednesday  in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Washington State’s Ike Iroegbu shoots against Colorado’s Xavier Johnson, left, Derrick White, second from left, and Wesley Gordon during the second half Wednesday in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
From staff reports

LAS VEGAS – Washington State’s streak of futility in the Pac-12 Tournament marched ever closer to a decade as the 10th-seeded Cougars surrendered a sizable lead and lost to seventh-seeded Colorado 73-63 on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena.

WSU ends the 2016-17 with a record of 13-18. The Cougars have not won a conference tournament game since 2009.

The Cougars led by as much as 19 in the first half, and were on top 41-27 at halftime. They shot 56.7 percent from the field and held the Buffaloes to just 32 percent.

“I thought the first half was probably the best basketball that we’ve played in this program in a pressure-packed situation since I’ve been here,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said afterward.

The second half proved into a display of everything that has haunted the Cougars this season.

They were torched by a star guard, in this case, Derrick White, who scored 17 of his 26 points after halftime. They struggled to contend with a physical team that pressured them all over the floor, making just 8 of 26 shots after halftime.

“I think they did a good job of running us off the line,” senior forward Josh Hawkinson said. “Not a lot of open 3-pointers. Also, they kind of doubled down in the post and made it hard to get post touches and easy looks, which lowered the shooting percentage.”

And most important, a team with a deeper bench again wore them out. WSU’s nonstarters scored only five points and the Cougars were outscored 11-3 over the game’s final 2:29.

The Cougars wilted late against many of the conference’s top teams this year. CU (19-13) struggled early in the year, losing its first seven Pac-12 games, but has won nine of 12 since losing to the Cougars in Pullman.

“(Wednesday’s loss) does resemble our games against the upper-echelon of the conference,” Kent said. “Colorado is one of those teams that was picked to finish in the top five. They started off 0-7, but they’re on a roll now. For all of those teams we played well for 30 minutes.”

The Buffaloes began the second half with a 9-4 run before the first media timeout to make the game competitive. White had seven consecutive points during that run, and made key offensive plays during the game’s final minutes to hold off WSU’s final efforts.

He credited his team’s second-half surge to a gut-check moment in the locker room.

“We talked about what kind of team we were, what kind of players we had and what kind of character we had,” White told the Pac-12 Network after the game. “We came out in the second half and played the way we were supposed to play for the entire game.”

But the Buffaloes were showing signs of life even before halftime. WSU made a number of turnovers late in the first half, and saw a 19-point lead dwindle to 12, before Ike Iroegbu hit a pair of free throws with 3 seconds until halftime to give the Cougars their 14-point cushion.

The loss means the end of the careers of four WSU seniors: Charles Callison, Connor Clifford, Iroegbu and Hawkinson. Hawkinson, who had a dozen points and rebounds on Wednesday, finishes as the school’s all-time leader in rebounds (1,015) and double-doubles (56).

All four graduating seniors were starters, meaning the Cougars will be replacing a lot of production next season. The team will likely be built around the fifth starter, Malachi Flynn, who starred as a freshman this season but hit a wall as the season progressed, scoring just three points over WSU’s last three games.

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