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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Grip on Sports: Washington State did what it had to do Thursday night in Tucson and didn’t seem a bit surprised with the outcome

A GRIP ON SPORTS • We love to look ahead on Fridays. After all, the following two days are always the best of the week – by any measure. But we can’t do that today. Not exclusively, anyway. Not after what happened last night.

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• We start in Tucson, home of the fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats. The more-often-than-not Pac-12 basketball frontrunner. The soon-to-be member of the Big 12. The scenic winter destination that is usually hell-on-earth for visiting college basketball teams.

Except Thursday night. For Washington State. Kyle Smith’s 21st-ranked team arrived in the desert ready. Ready for Arizona’s vaunted fast break. Ready for McKale Center’s raucous crowd. Ready for everything the Wildcats threw at them – including the glow stick that thudded on the floor in the final seconds. And left with a crucial 77-74 Pac-12 victory, UA’s first home loss of the season.

Nothing Tommy Lloyd’s team could do could shake the Cougars. Well, other than Caleb Love slipping to the ground with a handful of seconds on the clock. The joy WSU’s players showed as they had just been handed a gift was about the only loss of concentration observed all night.

It lasted only as long as it took to get the ball inbounds. The Cougs focused, made the pass they needed, watched as Jaylen Wells made both free throws – the first as the aforementioned glow stick almost struck Smith – and challenged just enough that Love’s last-second heave fell short.

Even then, Washington State’s celebration seemed a bit muted, considering the Cougars hadn’t been in first place this late in the conference season since, well, since the conference wasn’t even the Pac-whatever-number-you-want-to-call-it.

Maybe it is the realization the work isn’t finished. A big step, sure, but stumbling Saturday in Tempe would wash away the glow. Maybe it is knowing how good they have become, so good in fact they may not even think Thursday’s win was an upset, despite oddsmakers’ pregame declarations. Or it could just be they were worried about more glow-stick missiles.

Whatever it was, it showed in a subtle way just how locked-in Smith’s group is. And bodes well for Saturday and beyond. You know, the end of the regular season. The Pac-12 tourney. And the Big Kahuna, the NCAAs. Where the Cougars will be playing in March.

• That’s something that’s not assured for the EWU women, not matter how impressive last night’s 67-42 rout of now-second-place Northern Arizona in Cheney. The Big Sky is a one-bid conference every year. The Eagles, 73rd in the latest NCAA NET rankings, know the only guarantee of playing in the NCAA Tournament is to win the postseason tournament.

A school-record 22 wins (and counting) isn’t enough. A regular season title, which is within their grasp with four games remaining, isn’t enough. A suffocating defense, which was on display against the high-scoring Lumberjacks, isn’t enough. There is more that must be done. We’re guessing Eastern is up to it.

• Speaking of more to be done, Yvonne Ejim decided she has more to do at Gonzaga. The soon-to-be WCC Player of the Year told the faithful via a pregame video she was returning to GU for her COVID year. Then the Zags ran USF out of the Kennel, 74-48, continuing their undefeated, and rarely challenged, jog through the conference regular season.

• The GU men did something the Eastern men could not last night. They traveled to Portland, a WCC also-ran, and ran away with an 86-65 victory. Eastern, on the other hand, saw its two-game Big Sky lead snipped in half as they squandered a seven-point lead in the final 3 minutes, gave up the final 14 points and lost 78-71 at Northern Arizona. Now the Eagles travel to second-place Northern Colorado on Saturday. Another showdown. On the road.

• What else is ahead this weekend, besides college hoops? Pretty much nothing of consequence – with one exception. The NBA and NHL roll on. The PGA event in Mexico has a leaderboard of guys who may as well be in witness protection. And every other sport is either taking the weekend off or coasting.

The one exception? The Mariners’ first spring training game is on Root on Saturday (12:05 p.m.). Baseball. Green grass. Sun. See-through uniforms. Just like it should be.

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WSU: The Cougars were really locked-in before halftime. They held Arizona to zero transition points. As in nothing. And only led by a point. That was symbolic of how tough this one was. Throughout. Greg Woods was in McKale and has the game story. He also has a quick recap that includes highlights. … There was coverage of the game from Tucson and elsewhere, which we can pass along as well as today’s NET rankings.. … Greg also has a story on a change in the behind-the-scenes personnel for Jake Dickert’s football program. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and the nation, Washington had a 25-point lead over host Arizona State in the second half last night. The game ended up in overtime. Bottom line, though, is the Huskies won, 84-82. … The same didn’t happen for Oregon State, which led host California by double digits before losing 81-73. … Oregon was hot from the outside, Stanford was not and the visiting Ducks won 78-65. … UCLA’s Mick Cronin yells a lot. Is that how he should be judged? Or is it how the Bruins feel about him? And how they play? … USC does not sell out on the glass. … No. 12 UCLA started hot, stayed hot and blew out 18th-ranked Utah women at Pauley Pavilion. … Oregon is at Washington tonight. … Arizona is at third-ranked Stanford tonight. … USC has its own defensive metric. … In football news, the haggling over the long-term future of the playoffs is heating up. The strong want all the berths. The weak are trying to hang on. … Washington’s new look roster may have some holes. But what position will be the strongest? … Oregon’s center may just be a first-round NFL draft pick. … The newest Oregon State defensive coordinator wants his group to “force the issue.” … USC lost an assistant coach to the Chargers. No need to sell the house, right? … Former Arizona (and WSU) quarterback Jayden de Laura declared for the NFL draft.

Gonzaga: What the Zags needed was a win. According to Joe Lunardi, a big win, but what does he know? And what does it really matter until next month? Anyhow, the win part of their work was handled. As was the big part. Jim Meehan has the story of the 86-65 decision in Portland. … Theo Lawson has a story on Ben Gregg’s first homecoming as a starter. He also has the difference makers. … Tyler Tjomsland has the sights covered in this photo gallery. … The folks in the office put together the recap with highlights. … Greg Lee was in McCarthey and has coverage of the women’s easy victory.

EWU: Dan Thompson has the coverage from Cheney as the women took over first place in the Big Sky with their 67-42 rout of the Lumberjacks. … We also can pass along this story on the men’s heartbreaking defeat before a handful of folks in Flagstaff. … Elsewhere in the Big Sky, the Montana men stayed in the conference race by outlasting Sacramento State in Missoula. … Montana State also picked up a win over visiting Portland State. … The Montana women won in Sacramento. … A cold-shooting second half cost Montana State at PSU. … In football news, first-year Idaho State football coach Cody Hawkins signed a long-term extension. … The Bengals’ athletes also have studies to worry about.

Idaho: The Vandal men and women fell to Northern Colorado last night, the men in Greeley and the women at home.

Whitworth: The Pirates will host the all-important Northwest Conference men’s basketball tournament starting tonight. The four-team affair will determine the conference’s NCAA Division III tournament representative. With more than 90% of Division III schools east of the Rockies, NWC schools rarely earn one of the 20 at-large berths in the NCAA’s 64-school field. Justin Reed has a preview of the weekend tournament. Whitworth opens with Puget Sound tonight.

Preps: There are 30 schools in the Inland Northwest headed to the regional round of the WIAA’s State basketball tournaments. Dave Nichols has a quick look at every game.

Seahawks: Ryan Grubb is more than the pass-happy offensive coordinator you may remember from his Washington days. You know, last season. … What does Geno Smith getting his money mean? … The staff seems to be complete.

Mariners: We linked this story yesterday when it was in the Times. Now it is on the S-R site. Emerson Hancock is ready to help the M’s win whenever they call on him. … A couple of the M’s top prospects seem to be on the fast-track to the bigs.

Kraken: It seems Seattle knows what is at stake. The Kraken showed some urgency in Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Canucks. They are fighting for a playoff spot.

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• Got some time this weekend? How about taking in a high school playoff game either tonight or tomorrow? Or heading up to Whitworth to watch a conference tournament? Or raking up winter’s debris from the front yard? You decide. Seems like an easy decision to us. Until later …