The Washington State Cougars came into Hec Ed Pavilion Sunday night with National Invitation Tournament tattooed all over them.
The tattoo transferred easily upon the Washington Huskies.
That is, should the second-tier post-season hoops tourney want them after the 80-69 loss that was easily the most uninspired, inept performance of the season. Except for a late flurry that closed the gap to six points, Washington looked nothing like a team peaking for the NCAA tourney. Wins this week will probably salvage the NCAA berth, but those wins seem a much shakier prospect in view of the weekend’s events.
At 19-9 with home games left against two suddenly hot teams, UCLA Thursday and USC Saturday, a season of great expectations is in question after a seasonal sweep by the Cougs, who had lost four of their previous six games, including a 71-69 defeat to bottom-feeder Arizona State last week.
“I thought we’d be ready to play,” said Lorenzo Romar, Washington’s crestfallen coach. “We haven’t played a game like this at home all year.”
Playing at home, where they were undefeated this season, after five days between games and with a veteran team supposedly irked over their treatment in Pullman after an 87-80 loss Jan. 30, the Huskies came out dazed and confused. If this is how they respond to insult, Cougars fans would be advised to speak harshly and unpleasantly at regular intervals to the Huskies.
“We missed some easy shots and kind of backed off a little,” said Romar, referring to a 3-for-21 start from the field. “We didn’t play with a lot of aggressiveness.”
No kidding. The Huskies missed bunny after bunny inside, and trey after trey outside. Their two biggest stars, Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, came up small when the game was lost in a first half in which UW scored 17 points.
Seventeen points! For a team that has been ranked in the top five nationally most of the season in average per game, the collapse was epic. They whiffed on 17 of 25 field goal attempts, including 12 of 13 behind the arc.
“To hold a team of that caliber to 17 points,” said WSU coach Ken Bone, “it is good.”
The Cougars were little better, missing 17 of 25, but that was still enough for a 24-17 lead at the break — a term that everyone was seeking in sold-out Hec Ed after watching the teams combine for 19 turnovers amid the usual chaos of horrendous Pac-10 officiating.
But a still-winnable game escaped the Huskies early in the second half, when bad officiating, bad coaching and bad defense allowed the Cougars a five-point play on a single possession.
Cougars forward DeAngelo Casto floated free down the lane, barely brushed by UW center Aziz N’Diaye, then scooped in a shot that was called good on a preposterous continuation call after the foul. Romar and Huskies fans erupted, especially after seeing the replay on the big screen.
Romar came out too far on the floor and was called for a technical foul. WSU’s Klay Thompson made two free throws off the T, Casto added one off the non-foul, and the WSU lead abruptly went to 38-23.
The shocker slapped the crowd into a silence that was almost eerie. Deflated, fans stared as WSU calmly went to the free throw line and drilled home the game, making a remarkable 32 of 36 in a house notorious for its distractions.
Washington finally made its expected run, closing a 21-point deficit with three treys in a row to 65-59 with 4:06 remaining. But it was too far to come for a team bewilderingly unprepared for the game.
That was not the case for the Cougars, whom Bone, the former Washington assistant coach, prepared brilliantly. The Cougars didn’t shoot well, but they didn’t have to as UW’s step-slow defense sent them to the line steadily. More important, they were not intimidated by the circumstances or their more athletically talented opponents. Thompson finished with 26, half from the line, and Casto 20 as they outplayed their heralded opponents for the second time in a month.
The Huskies have given the NCAA tourney selection committee much to think about. They have only one decent road win, at UCLA when the Bruins were still stalling, and now a large late-season home loss.
Washington players came into the game talking revenge, upset that the fans in Pullman rushed the court, a move some considered tacky for a fairly ordinary game. The Huskies said their fans would never do such a thing.
They never had a chance to prove the players right.