"But I really believe the turning point in the program was at Oklahoma State," he told Cougfan.com earlier this summer.
|Twelfth in a series of feature stories (15 for 15) CF.C is running in the days surrounding its 15th anniversary on August 15.|
It was early December 2004. The Cowboys were ranked No. 6 in the nation and fresh off a Final Four appearance the season prior. The Cougars were four games into Bennett's second season at WSU.
"Dick wanted to play this game," remembers Johnson. "He wanted our guys to see what it took to compete at the highest levels … Oklahoma State at that time was as good a program as there was. This was going to be a reality check."
What ensued was nothing short of breathtaking.
The Cowboys won 81-29. Yes, a 52-point loss. The game was more than nine minutes old before the Cougs scored their first basket, a Shami Gill jumper.
"That game was wake up call for our players. It showed them so clearly how much harder they had to work and focus to compete at that level," Johnson says.
Three weeks after that the Cougs beat Stanford for the first time in 18 games. And a month later they ended a 38-game losing streak to No. 11 Arizona.
So when CF.C editors, as part of the site's 15th anniversary milestone, sat down to pick the 15 most memorable moments in Cougar basketball over the last 15 years, the Oklahoma State game was brought up.
"It was important for the development of the team, but the fact is that it was a humiliating loss most fans would just as soon forget," says CF.C managing editor Barry Bolton. "There was a bit of a debate about it."
In fact, there was a bit of debate about a lot.
So much so that we turned to Bud Nameck, the Cougars' long-time play-by-play man, to help get our arms around 15 seasons of Cougar basketball.
With his help, we present to you the 15 most memorable moments in Cougar basketball since Cougfan.com was launched in August 1998 ….
1. DICK BENNETT IS HIRED AS HEAD COACH, March 2003
In one of the great coups in Pac-12 history in any sport, WSU athletic director Jim Sterk lured Bennett out of retirement to take on one final rebuild. Knowing Bennett's love of golf, Sterk pulled a fast one when Bennett came out to visit the campus by having Bennett stay overnight at the Coeur d' Alene Resort after flying into Spokane. The next morning, Sterk took Bennett for a spin around the spectacular golf course there. "He made it sound like the course and campus were 10 minutes apart," Bennett said years later. "I had no idea Coeur d' Alene wasn't part of Pullman until we were on the road."
2. ZAGS GO DOWN IN RAUCOUS BEASLEY, SETTING COURSE FOR MAGICAL YEAR, December 2006
Beasley was packed and the sound almost deafening. When the Cougs pulled away late in this donnybrook of a battle with the No. 18-ranked Zags, the end result was a forgone conclusion: a storming of the court. It was more like a flood gate opening. A decade of losing basketball was finally at an end. The Cougars, now 8-1, were for real. The 77-67 score proved it. "I told our guys this is why they came here, to play in front of a big crowd on our home floor," said first year WSU coach Tony Bennett. The Cougars harassed Gonzaga into 17 turnovers and five steals, coming back from 10-point and 7-point deficits in the first and second halves. Kyle Weaver spearheaded the Cougar cause with two steals and a block to go along with 16 points and seven assists. Derrick Low fired up 22 and Daven Harmeling 20. The Cougs won 26 games that season and made it to the second round of the Big Dance.
3. COUGS ADVANCE TO SWEET 16 WITH THUMPING OF NOTRE DAME, March 2008
This was quintessential Bennett Ball. The Cougar defense smothered the Irish and leading scorer Luke Harangody. The 61-41 win secured the Cougs their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1941. And to think they won just four Pac-10 games two seasons earlier. Derrick Low scored 18 points, while Kyle Weaver did a bit of everything, scoring 15, grabbing 9 rebounds and nabbing 3 steals. Robbie Cowgill scored 12 and Taylor Rochestie dished 7 assists. Second-year head coach Tony Bennett embraced his dad, up in the stands, afterward. "He deserves so much credit," Tony said. "He started this thing, installed the system."
4. LUTE OLSEN'S 38-GAME WIN STREAK VS. COUGS IS ENDED, January 2005
The historic nature of the Cougars' 70-63 shocker at No. 11-ranked Arizona was captured in the first two sentences of the Associated Press' dispatch afterward: "Four of the Washington State players on the court Saturday were not born the last time the Cougars beat Arizona. Two others were barely in diapers." It was Dick Bennett's second season on the Palouse. Ending the Wildcats' 19-year-long streak was a formidable step in the program's growth. "I can't remember the last time I was this happy," said the Cougars' Thomas Kelati, who canned seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points. "I returned to that locker room, coach was in tears, players were in tears. This feels good."
5. COUGS STUN DAWGS IN FIRST OF 7 STRAIGHT AGAINST THEM, January 2006
History was not on the Cougars' side going into this one. The Dawgs, led by Brandon Roy, were ranked No. 10 in the nation, and WSU hadn't defeated a top 10 team on the road since polls began in 1949. Moreover, standout guard Derrick Low was on the sidelines with a broken foot. No matter. Josh Akognon poured in 27, including the tiebreaker from downtown with 16 seconds left, and Kyle Weaver added 17, as the Cougs overcame a 13-point deficit to win, 78-71, in Seattle for the first time since 1994. Asked afterward where the win ranked in his time at WSU, Dick Bennett said the Cougs played a more complete game in the upset of Arizona the season before "but this one was the guttiest." The win gave Coug fans a glimpse of the potential this young team would fully exhibit the following season.
6. THE GHOSTS OF PAULEY PAVILION ARE VANQUISHED, February 2004 The Bruins were in the midst of a down season, but that was beside the point. Washington State had never, ever defeated UCLA in Los Angeles. Before the game, first-year coach Dick Bennett pointed to the ceiling and told his players about the great teams, players and coach represented by the championship banners. He said they needed to come out with the energy to match the feeling of the building. And they did. Led by Thomas Kelati and Jeff Varem, the Cougs beat the Bruins in Pauley, 55-48. It marked the first WSU win over the Bruins since 1993 and was the first-ever WSU win over UCLA in Los Angeles in 47 tries. The foundation was being poured. Bennett Ball, it seemed, held some real promise.
Playing in front of the biggest home crowd in nearly a quarter-century, the No. 21-ranked Cougars were taking on their mirror opposites. WSU was built on defense and the UW was averaging 83.4 points per game -- 11th-most in the nation. The Cougs didn't disappoint the high-octane home crowd, winning by 28, 75-47. Spencer Hawes didn't play but it's hard to imagine it would have made much difference. The Cougar defense limited the Huskies to 28 percent from the field. Derrick Low led the way on offense with 20, while Kyle Weaver scored 17, grabbed 8 rebounds and dished 4 assists. The win improved the Cougs to 16-3 and put them on a track for their first NCAA Tourney bid since 1994.
8. DOUBLE OT: NO. 7 IN THE STREAK OVER THE HUSKIES, March 2008
Another boisterous Beasley crowd was treated to one of the great nail-biters in rivalry history. It was the final home game for the three senior who had led the Cougar renaissance: Kyle Weaver, who scored 20, Derrick Low, who canned 16, and Robbie Cowgill, who was so clutch down the stretch. The No. 23-ranked Cougars won 76-73 in double overtime, clinching third place in the Pac-10 and capping the regular season with a 23-7 record. Before the month was done, they would advance to the Sweet 16.
9. COUGS GET FIRST NCAA TOURNEY WIN SINCE 1983, March 2007 The long road back to the Big Dance took 13 years. But getting a victory there – something that last happened 24 years prior – was looking iffy as the first half wound down against Oral Roberts. The Cougars were sluggish and the Golden Eagles were just seconds away from taking a four-point lead in the locker room. But Kyle Weaver, who had been on the bench with foul trouble much of the half, stole an inbounds pass underneath the Cougar basket and threw down a dunk as the buzzer sounded. The momentum shift was palpable, and the Cougars would go on to win 70-54. Ivory Clark had a monstrous game: 19 points, 6 rebounds, 5 blocks and 1 assist. Taylor Rochestie scored 15, dished 4 assists and grabbed 5 rebounds, while Weaver added 10 points, eight rebounds and 4 assists. The victory sent the Cougars on to a second-round game against Vanderbilt.
10. NO. 4-RANKED COUGS MOVE TO 13-0 WITH WIN OVER DAWGS, January 2008
The march to the Sweet 16 began with 12 straight non-conference wins and then a 56-52 grinder against Washington in Seattle to open Pac-10 play. Trailing by three late in the game, the Cougars scored 11 of the game's final 15 points, and took the lead for good on a Taylor Rochestie runner with 3:04 left. Kyle Weaver made three of four free throw attempts in the final 30 seconds to seal the victory, which was the Cougars' sixth straight against the Huskies. The Cougs, ranked fourth in the country, moved to 13-0 for the first time since the 1935-36 season.
11. SECOND WIN IN STREAK VS. DAWGS, February 2006
Proving that the first win over the Huskies that season on the road was no fluke, the Cougs took it to ‘em again a month later in Pullman, 77-64. This one was nearly as shocking as the first because since that previous game the Huskies had maintained a spot in the top 20 while the Cougars had lost six straight. Fueled by a stoked student body and standing-room-only crowd, the Cougars overcame a 35-30 halftime deficit with an 11-0 run to start the second half. Aron Baynes led the Cougars with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Josh Akognon, the hero of the first win over the Huskies, had 14 points. The victory gave WSU's its first sweep of the Dawgs in 12 years – yet another negative streak Dick Bennett brought an end to before he retired a month later.
12. ROCHESTIE HITS TREY AT BUZZER ON SENIOR DAY, February 2009
The final game at Friel Court for seniors Daven Harmeling, Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes and Caleb Forrest (and, as it turned out, Tony Bennett), was one to remember. Rochestie made only two shots the entire game, hitting his first and his last to go 2-for-11. But oh that last one was a doozy. With 2.3 seconds left and the Cougs trailing No. 14-ranked Arizona State 49-48, Rochestie squared up from way beyond the three-point line and proceeded hit nothing but net. The crowd went wild, perhaps as much for the victory, which effectively locked up an NIT berth, as for the fact four key players in the resurrection of the program got to go out at home on a very high note.
13. ONE OF THE BIG DANCE'S BEST GAMES OF '07 ENDS WRONG, March 2007
It's tough to put a loss on the list, but this game was so good, so heart-stopping and, yes, so memorable, that there's no way not to put it on the list. The Cougars and Commodores waged a battle royale that was ultimately won, 78-74, by Vandy on a hailstorm of late three-pointers by Derrick Byars. Derrick Low paced the Cougs with 21 and Robbie Cowgill had 14. "That was one of the best college basketball games I've ever been involved in," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "And as happy as I am for our team, my heart goes out to Tony Bennett and the Washington State players, because neither team deserved to lose that game." The magical run for the Cougs was over, but what a season it was: 26-8 overall and 13-5 in the Pac-10.
14. COUGS GET HOT AND RUN TO NIT SEMI-FINALS IN NEW YORK, March 2011
There's no getting around the fact you'd rather be a low seed in the NCAA Tournament than a high seed in the NIT, but if you're heading to the No. 2 tourney you might as well have fun with it. And so it was in March 2011, when the Cougars were still playing basketball when most of the rest of the country wasn't. After finishing the regular season with a 19-12 record, the Cougs entered the NIT and proceeded to dispatch Long Beach State, Oklahoma State and Northwestern in overtime before falling to eventual champion Wichita State in the semis. In the three victories, Klay Thompson scored a collective 63 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.
15. KLAY THOMPSON SCORES RECORD 43 IN PAC-10 TOURNEY, March 2011
The thinking going into this Pac-10 tournament quarterfinal game was that a WSU victory might be enough to secure a bid to the NCAA tourney. And what a show Klay Thompson put on in what was one of the most exciting games of the season. He scored a Pac-10 tournament record 43 points, hitting eight 3-pointers. DeAngelo Casto also played an excellent game, with 13 points and nine rebounds. The Cougs, who had beaten the Huskies twice earlier in the season, lost 89-87, but Thompson's work was nothing less than head turning and clearly presaged the success he would find in the NBA.
LASTING IMAGES OF THE LAST 15 YEARS ON THE HARDCOURT ...