Cougars win rivalry battle with impressive defensive effort
SPOKANE, Wash. -- When will the doubting stop? When will coaches and players and college basketball fans across the country finally see that Washington State wasn't a one-year wonder? When will people start believing in this team and its six returning upperclassmen?
Something had to happen first for the credibility to be restored. The Cougars' nonconference schedule was incredibly weak for a preseason top-10 team. Wins over Montana, Mississippi Valley State, Air Force and Baylor hardly raised any eyebrows.
But Wednesday night's game against No. 19 Gonzaga on the road would serve as a true barometer.
"I'm not knocking the other teams we faced, but this was the ultimate [test]," said WSU senior guard Derrick Low. "We thought this game would be the game that would establish us against all the other great teams."
That's why beating Gonzaga, 51-47, at the McCarthey Athletic Center should be celebrated as the reason the Cougs (8-0) have arrived yet again on the national scene.
"We're going to have to legitimize where we're at pretty much every day, that's what coach said," added WSU senior forward Robbie Cowgill. "Baylor was a good test, but this was the kind of atmosphere and athleticism we'll play in the preseason. This will be the best team in our preseason that we'll face."
Washington State was ranked in the top 10 to start the season and checked in at No. 6 prior to Wednesday's game at Gonzaga (7-2), which was fresh off an East Coast sweep at Saint Joseph's and over Connecticut in Boston. But time after time throughout the preseason, Washington State's ability to duplicate last season's second-place Pac-10 finish and second-round berth in the NCAA Tournament was questioned.
The late tip time of 11:10 p.m. ET, when much of the country wasn't watching, means you'll have to believe the written word rather than the visual evidence.
Washington State's 51-47 win over Gonzaga was as impressive a defensive and rebounding performance as any team will deliver this season. The low scoring indicates an ugly game. That would be a gross generalization.
Teams don't come into the McCarthey Athletic Center and win. Only one other has -- Santa Clara, last season -- since the second incarnation of The Kennel opened four years ago. No team has come into The Kennel and beaten Gonzaga while the Bulldogs were ranked in the Top 25.
"I was excited that we finally put together the defense for 40 minutes on the floor," said Washington State coach Tony Bennett, who was euphoric after the game, hugging assistant coaches and pointing to his wife Laurel in the stands. "To come into this building was a big deal, and the kids passed the test."
Beating Gonzaga -- the first time the Cougars have beaten the Zags on the road since 1985 -- is yet another obstacle cleared by the Bennett family at Washington State.
Here's what else the Bennetts -- father Dick and now son Tony -- have done since Dick arrived as the head coach in 2003 and Tony took over a year ago:
• Last season, the Cougars snapped a seven-game losing streak to Gonzaga.
• The program's won for the first time at UCLA in Pauley Pavilion in 2004.
• Wazzu completed the school's first-ever sweep of the L.A. schools (UCLA and USC) on that same trip in 2004.
• The Cougars' win at Cal in 2004 stopped a 21-game Pac-10 road losing streak.
• Washington State's win over Arizona in 2005 snapped a 38-game losing streak to the Wildcats.
"It is just one game," Tony Bennett said postgame Wednesday. "But what showed is the experience, a senior [Kyle Weaver] going against a sophomore [Matt Bouldin], and a senior [Robbie Cowgill] going against a freshman [Austin Daye]."
Wazzu's defensive numbers were staggering:
• Washington State had 36 defensive rebounds and only allowed Gonzaga eight offensive rebounds. The Zags grabbed only three offensive boards in the second half.
• Zag scorers Jeremy Pargo, Daye and Bouldin were a combined 4 of 31 from the field. Bouldin, who entered the game averaging 14.4 points, missed all nine of his shots.
"It's funny, I'd take it to the rack and I wouldn't see two or three of them but then they'd just dive in," Bouldin said of the deceptively quick and long Cougar defenders. "There's a reason they are No. 6 in the country. Their defense is real solid."
The length (a popular post-game word) of the 6-10 Cowgill and the 6-6 Weaver were the frustration points for the Bulldogs. While Daye and Pargo were quick to say they missed open shots, they couldn't dismiss that the Cougs' length created problems closer to the basket.
On the other end of the court, the Zags exerted its own defense in slowing Wazzu to 25 percent 3-point shooting and 34 percent field goal shooting in the second half. But Cougars guard Taylor Rochestie came up with well-time baskets -- a drive to the hoop in the first half and a back-breaking 3-pointer in the second -- and the power game of the most improved Cougar, Aron Baynes, was too much to handle.
During an October visit, Low said he couldn't wait to watch the 6-10, 270-pound Baynes to tussle with UCLA's heralded Kevin Love in the post. On Wednesday, after Baynes took an errant elbow to the face in the first half and had blood oozing out of a cut above his eyebrow, the Aussie unleashed his edge and looked ready for a brawl. That brute force showed throughout the game as Baynes didn't back down, even when the Zags tossed seldom-used 7-4 Will Foster his way.
"No one knows who we are," Low said. "Everyone always is 'Look at them, who are these guys, they're not too good.' Rob [Cowgill] doesn't look like much. He's real skinny, but he's active for a big guy. Kyle is just a total player. He can score. He's long and really good defensively. Taylor has the ability to penetrate and get open shots for all of us."
Washington State isn't out of the woods, though. The Cougars, as always, have a slim margin for error. The Pac-10 schedule doesn't help their cause with five of the first seven games on the road, including three straight at Washington, at USC and at UCLA.
"We have three things that have to be for us to [win]: transition defense, take care of the ball and keep people off the glass," Bennett said. "When we fall away from who we are, we're mediocre to average."
Bennett has a tendency to undersell this team. But it will be harder to do that after the way the Cougars defended the Zags on Wednesday.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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