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WASHINGTON STATE'S BASKETBALL team gathered at midcourt as the lyrics of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" resonated throughout Beasley Coliseum. The Cougars had just survived several Northwestern runs, poor free-throw shooting and overtime to earn a 69-66 victory in the NIT quarterfinals Wednesday night.

For the first time in program history, WSU advanced to the NIT tournament semifinals at 4 p.m. Tuesday (TV: ESPN2) against Wichita State (27-8) at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"There's just so much history there," WSU coach Ken Bone said during a postgame radio interview. "You think about different arenas around the country -- Madison Square Garden seems to be the place people want to get to."

It never came easy for WSU (22-12). Junior forward Abe Lodwick had an opportunity to win the game after he was fouled with two-tenths of a second remaining in regulation with the score 64-all. But he missed a pair of free throws to send the contest into overtime. John Shurna tied the game four seconds earlier when junior center DeAngelo Casto was called for goaltending on his drive.

Lodwick was not alone -- the Cougars converted just 4 of 9 free throws in the final 3 minutes, 29 seconds of regulation.

Neither team scored in overtime until Thompson hit a jumper with 3:36 remaining to give WSU a 66-64 lead. But the Wildcats (20-14) had one incredibly lengthy possession -- five consecutive opportunities to score -- before the Cougars saw the ball again. They failed to convert each time, but Northwestern was faring no better.

That streak, Northwestern shot just 37.5 percent from the field, finally ended on its ensuing possession when center Luka Mirkovic scored on a layup to tie the game.

WSU junior wing Klay Thompson, who had a team-high 17 points, responded on the ensuing possession by converting a pair of free throws with 1:10 left to give the Cougars a 68-66 lead.

It appeared that might be enough when the Wildcats turned the ball over on its next possession. But Moore, who was stripped of the ball before Mirkovic knocked it out of bounds, was only able to split a pair of free throws with 19.1 seconds remaining.

"Just don't let them hit a three," said Moore, when asked about his thoughts at the time in a postgame radio interview.

Alex Marcotullio had two opportunities to do just that, but missed both before time expired.

"I guess you could say we like to make it exciting for the fans," Moore said. "I would rather have a blowout."

WSU seemed headed that direction when Wildcats coach Bill Carmody was assessed with a technical foul with 4:22 left in the first half. Thompson split a pair of free throws to put the Cougars ahead 31-17.

THE DISCUSSION AT that time surrounded how WSU responded from the adversity surrounding the team. Pullman Police allegedly found marijuana in center Casto's apartment -- he became the third Cougars' player arrested on marijuana-related charges this season -- and initially was suspended for the game. But as details emerged about the legality of the police search -- Casto also pleaded not guilty to the charges -- and he was reinstated Wednesday afternoon by athletic director Bill Moos. Casto, who opened the scoring with a thunderous dunk, finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.

"It's brought us a lot closer," said Moore, who was cited on marijuana charges, along with Thompson, earlier this season. "A lot of people said a lot about us. We had to stay together."

But the momentum shifted after the technical foul and guard Michael Thompson, who scored a game-high 18 points, scored on a drive to cut WSU's lead in half, to 38-31 at the break. Despite that, Northwestern shot just 40 percent from the field -- and made just 5 of 17 3-pointers -- in the opening half against the Cougars' zone.

Even though the Wildcats finished just 7-11 in Big Ten play, they were ranked 15th nationally in offensive efficiency at 116.1 by college basketball statistical analyst Ken Pomeroy.

"I think our defense was very good," Bone said. "They're outstanding at executing their offense with the timing, spacing and cuts."

He also said he was proud of how his team responded from their 89-87 loss against Washington in the Pac-10 Tournament that effectively ended their NCAA Tournament hopes. WSU, which now is 6-0 in NIT home games, won three times in the tournament at Friel Court.

"It's nice to see the kids get rewarded here with three home games in front of their friends and family," Bone said.

None were more difficult than the finale.

"I've never been in a game like this," Moore said. "You always see games like this on ESPN."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • The Cougars improved to 2-2 this season in overtime contests. They defeated Santa Clara and lost at California and against UCLA.
  • WSU has split its six games against Northwestern.

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