(Jason McCleary of leftcoastrecruiting.com contributed to this post)
The Dawgs gutted out a tough 59-55 win over WSU that certainly was aided by more than a little luck. With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, coach Lorenzo Romar must have found a four leaf clover on the snowy winding road to Pullman, as the Cougs missed 14-20 free throws, while blowing a double digit lead down the stretch to the Huskies. Though UW received some help at the free throw line, it was not a pretty victory over the Cougars. Some would say WSU “Couged it” like they have as recently as February 16th when junior post Brock Motum missed 4-5 FT’s in the final minutes and more antagonistic Husky homers would say is a consistent result.
I think that this problem for the Cougs has more to do with this year’s team, which has just had a rash of bad luck and breaks. Great teams overcome those situations, but this year’s WSU team had major questions going into the year and
needed good luck, not bad, to even be decent. Losing go-to senior guard Faisal Aden was probably what put the Cougs out of the picture, but it was this same Coug team with Aden that beat Cal in January and could’ve done a lot more, had he not gone down.
Next year for WSU looks much more promising, with guards Reggie Moore and Mike Lad returning for senior seasons, along with dynamic Devonte Lacy. Add to that freshman Demarquise Johnson, red-shirt junior Dexter Kernich-Drew and Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge at Aden’s spot, plus the rest of a very strong 2012
recruiting class AND the return of Motum and junior D.J. Shelton up front and the Cougs should be much better.
On Saturday thenewstribune.com ran a piece on Motum, pointing to him as not only the most improved player in the league, but one of the best. If he improves as much in this off-season as he did this past one, WSU could be sitting on a gold mine. Despite the optimism for next year, it had to hurt WSU fans on senior day to watch the crimson and gray toss it away at the stripe. Maybe UW could have won the game anyway, the way they stormed back after going down 13 with 11-minutes to play on a Motum layup, but I think it would have taken more than a little luck of their own.
From that point UW erased the lead on a made FT by senior post Darnell Gant in a little over three minutes in which WSU did not score. Coming into the game, Washington State led the Pac-12 in free throw shooting in conference play, but only shot 50% from the line against the Dawgs, after going 11-12 in the first half. It was nearly a complete collapse at the foul line for WSU, but in a game where both teams put up ugly numbers, it wasn’t your best display of basketball all around.
Much like similar road wins in the conference against Utah, ASU and Oregon State, the Dawgs ground out a win that only a mother could love. At half time the score was 28-28, were it not for four 3’s by sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox in a 2 1/2 minute spurt off the bench, WSU would have likely been up by double digits. As far as the Cougars, they had Motum bucket for 10 points, while senior wing Marcus Capers put in work as well all over the stat sheet in front of his parents on senior day.
Wilcox and freshman guard Tony Wroten were the only ones that were assertive in the first half for UW, with Tony finding a way to get to the rim and Wilcox hitting his quick threes. Wroten led all scorers on Saturday with 21 points and added six boards, five assists and two steals. It was really Tony and C.J. stepping up in sophomore guard Terrence Ross’ absence that was the reason UW was in a position to cash in on their luck. Wilcox finished with 16 points, but his presence for 33 minutes while still playing with the stress fracture in his femur, was invaluable. C.J. also grabbed five boards and a steal, but was called for a foul on a play that should have an impressive block and was a bad referee call.
That was about it for UW, as those six were the story. freshman Austin Seferian-Jenkins logged four fouls in six minutes, but grabbed a couple of boards. Freshman back-up posts Shawn Kemp Jr. and Desmond Simmons, a former starter, were scoreless. Simmons has kind of dropped off, but Gant was able to fill that role well, even though he only scored three points. Gant grabbed seven boards and more importantly logged 38 strong team oriented minutes, especially on defense against Motum who “only” scored 17 points. It is good to see the musical Darnell finish out his senior stanza on another high note. On Wednesday Gregg Bell of gohuskies.com wrote a feel good piece on Gant and all of the great things that he has accomplished at UW, on and off the court. Darnell is no slouch on the court, just because no one is talking about him as UW’s go-to guy. On Tuesday Gant’s dunk against ASU weekend before last was chosen in the top-10 dunks this year in the Pac-12 by azcentral.com. Ross and Wroten were also listed, Tony in the top spot for his Shawn Kemp Sr. like running tomahawk, also against the Sun Devils in Seattle.
Though it has been a trend for him to take a while to get going, Ross was held scoreless by the half in Pullman and uncharacteristically got his 3rd foul with nearly eight minutes to play before the break. Ross finished with two points. Terrence fouled out with a little over a minute to play in the game, but he only logged 21 minutes in which he played tentatively and was rather ineffective. Junior guard Abdul Gaddy said to the media the week before the game, “Heâ€™s difficult to stop once he gets going” and it seemed the Cougs listened. Though the second half started nicely for UW as Wroten hit a couple of FT’s with 18:34 to play, after an early Gant layup to stay with WSU, the Dawgs went lifeless. It was another pair of the dogged Wroten FT’s with 11:58 to play that ended a scoreless segment for UW in which WSU scored 12 to build a 13-point lead.
After another Motum bucket made the Coug lead 13 again, UW mounted it’s previously mentioned comeback in a game of hard and fast runs. The recurring theme though was the Cougars getting to the line and bricking. Perhaps the Dawgs had what it took on Saturday to win anyway, but it really seemed like they didn’t and it was the Cougs missing at the line that took them down. There isn’t much to say about this game, other than the Cougars shot themselves in the foot. But in the spirit of that luck of the Irish, it almost seemed like it was destined for the Dawgs to win this game as well as the other ugly road wins (other than the masterpiece in Tucson) in this very strange Pac-12 season. Speaking of luck and leprechauns, former Husky Isaiah Thomas flew into town over the weekend and was front and center to root his team on.
Thomas took time away from his immediate family on Saturday and enjoyed the day with his UW family to watch the win and seeing him there on TV was an inspiration. There are a lot of more pleasant places for a newly celebrated NBA player to take time off at the All-Star break than icy Pullman and displays like this clearly define the kind of commitment that Thomas has to the UW program. Even more than former Dawg Spencer Hawes, who I also roundly criticized for turning pro too early, I stick by my guns that Thomas would have done better to stay one more year, but it makes it hard for UW fans to question a guy with this type of purple passion.
Isaiah was thrilled when With 3:43 left in the game, junior guard and fellow Tacoman Gaddy made two FT’s to finally take the lead at 54-52. Abdul put in a solid game with 10 points, four assists and two steals. The Cougars never took the
lead after that. From there on the two teams sparred, but UW ground out the win, with the lone highlight a curious call by WSU coach Ken Bone to give sophomore post Patrick Simon the shot with UW up two and 13-seconds to play. Motum told the media after the game, “I wouldnâ€™t have (preferred) anyone else to shoot the ball”, but it was clear that Patrick was stiff from bench splinters.
Simon had not played in the game and chucked up an ice-cold air ball three attempt that Wilcox turned into two machine like FT’s on the other end to finish the scoring. Both junior center Aziz N’Daye and Ross fouled out in the game and were not very productive on the offensive side. N’Diaye did grab seven boards to go with seven points, but fouls also kept him on the bench for all but 21 minutes. It was a come down game for Aziz, after such a solid performance against ‘Zona the week before in a game where he was clearly the difference in UW’s win. Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times last Tuesday went so far as to talk about ‘Ziz being a possible breakout star in the NCAA Tournament this season.
After the game ended it was one of those games that left you scratching your head. Washington shot 35% from the field (as they had at OSU), 23% from three (six percentage points worse than against the Beavs), and 70% from the free throw line (one per cent better). At least in Corvallis, UW won on the glass, as WSU out rebounded the Dawgs convincingly 42-35. The Huskies have two games left in the regular season and will go down to California to battle UCLA and USC. What Romar has accomplished this year is reminiscent of the football tenure of Don James. He has won ugly and taken the youngest of the decent teams in the Pac-12 from a squad that looked like they couldn’t beat a D2 team on the road at times to a team that just found a way to win on hostile environments when it had to.
Lorenzo deserves to be awarded the conference Coach of the Year award for this reason. Like James would grind out wins in cold and rainy Husky Stadium in November and beat the teams they should on the road, Romar has taught his young guys to go on the road in January and February and split while (other than an odd loss to Cal) holding serve at home. This is a recipe for championship success in a competitive conference and Romar deserves a lot of credit to get his guys to perform this way, especially when you add to that the road sweep that they yielded in the desert. Now UW controls their Pac-12 destiny. With one weekend to go, all they need is a win over USC, who are just a notch better than most D2 teams, with the hand they’ve been dealt. If Bone rolled snake eyes in losing Aden, ‘SC coach Kevin O’Neill has had his unlucky number jammed on repeat.
The Trojans lost their best player in senior guard Jio Fontan on a exhibition tour of Brazil. They lost starting PF Aaron Fuller, starting center and NBA prospect Dewayne Dedmon and two other sophomore posts in Curtis Washington and Evan Smith to injury. This after losing post Nikola Vucevic early to the NBA and star freshman guard Bryce Jones to a transfer to UNLV. Jones is reportedly blowing up in practices in Vegas and Niko is playing a solid role, filling in for the injured Hawes in Philly. Even though the Trojans are close to decimated, losing probably seven of their top nine players that could have been on the court this season, UW cannot take any team lightly. The road has a strange way of coming up and biting you, if you don’t give it the proper respect and USC still has some weapons.
I will go on record though as saying that UW will win on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (PST), but UCLA on Saturday in Westwood CA at 11 a.m. is a whole ‘nuther story. UCLA came close to beating the Huskies on November 2nd in Seattle, in a game that was more about a ferocious Husky come back than an opponent’s collapse. It will probably take that LA sweep or a Cal loss at Stanford for most to feel that UW is in fact the best team in the Pac-12, despite their being all alone in first place at the moment. Cal has held that mantle for most of the year and still does, according to ESPN’s power rankings on Monday.
“Cal still looks like the best team in the conference, and its still-solid efficiency numbers (the Bears rank No. 19 overall in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency and No. 2 in the league in per-possession offense and defense, the best all-around numbers of any team in Pac-12 play) back that up.”
If the Huskies can win the next two on the road, they will not only have a real good shot at a decent at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, but will win their 4th straight conference title, their 2nd outright in four years. To hear UW fans question the abilities of Romar, like they did in droves after bleak early season moments like the 92-73 South Dakota State loss at Hec Ed on December 18th, does two things for me. It makes me feel old, as I have seen and incidentally stayed loyal enough to watch and root for way too many UW teams. It also makes me feel angry, not a good combination. Romar was the first UW coach to win (in 2009) an outright title since the early 50’s, let alone two. Romar is the first UW coach to win 20 games in four straight years by beating WSU Saturday. Romar’s ability to close both top recruits and find under the radar guys who turn out to be top players in unprecedented in UW history.