Cougfan at 15: Unsung Thomas Kelati

THOMAS KELATI changed everything. The Bennett Ball Era at Washington State will be forever defined by Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low and the rest of the gang that advanced to the Sweet 16 in March of 2008. But a key player in helping the Bennetts get the program off the ground with his leadership and calm under fire was one they inherited.

Kelati was entering his junior season at WSU when Dick and Tony arrived in Pullman for the 2003-04 season. The following year, Kelati was a senior showing a large class of freshmen with names such as Weaver, Low, Cowgill and Harmeling how it's done.

Fourteenth in a series of feature stories (15 for 15) CF.C is running in the days surrounding its 15th anniversary on August 15.

He earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors that season, averaging 14.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Better yet, he worked tirelessly and played defense with a vengeance.

"Thomas was an excellent leader, a very important part of what we were trying to instill in those first years ... just a great player and excellent young man," remembers WSU assistant coach Ben Johnson.

"At a formative time in the program's development, Thomas' work ethic and skills -- at both ends of the court -- were absolutely compelling," said CF.C managing editor Barry Bolton when asked why Kelati was one of the select people the site chose to profile for its 15th anniversary this month.

Kelati's talents were on full display his senior season, 2004-05, when he guided the Cougars to one of the most unexpected victories in the history of the program.

For Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats, who would advance that season to an Elite Eight showing in the NCAA Tournament, the visiting Cougars looked to be little more than bumps on the road to March Madness.

The Cougs were below .500 and lacking any sort of offensive cohesion.

There wasn't much reason for optimism for a Saturday matinee in January against the No. 11 team in the country. The Wildcats game into the game with 38-game win streak against the Cougars that dated back to 1986.

And then came Thomas Kelati.

A six-foot-five swing-guard out of Walla Walla, he was the quintessential Bennett player because he so valued defense. He could score, for sure, but defense was his calling card. Against the Wildcats, he did everything but draw up the plays on the clipboard.

He scored 27 points and hit a career-high seven three-pointers, the last of which came with the game tied at 63 with 50.4 seconds remaining. The 70-63 win reminded WSU basketball fans that the basketball program hadn't disappeared when Mark Hendrickson and Ike Fontaine graduated nearly a decade before.

Bud Nameck, the Cougars' play-by-play announcer for the last 20 years, said that victory and one at UCLA the season before were critical to the program's transformation because it convinced they players they could compete in the Pac-10. Former WSU assistant coach Ron Sanchez told several years ago that "Our freshmen that year thought going to Arizona and winning was normal."

Those freshmen, of course, would grow up to lead the Cougs to back-to-back NCAA tourney appearances and a Sweet 16 showdown with North Carolina.

For Kelati, the victory over Arizona was cathartic. The years of perseverance had paid off in a headline-grabbing way. "I can't remember the last time I was this happy," he told reporters after the game. "I returned to that locker room, coach was in tears, players were in tears. This feels good."

A month later, the Cougars beat Stanford for the second time that season. They were the Cougars' first wins over the Card since 1996.

It was light years from where he started, as a 167-pound part-time starter on a six-win team his freshmen year and then as a budding difference maker on a seven-win team his sophomore season.

That's when Paul Graham was fired. Enter Bennett, whose demanding standards and focus on defense rocked the program in a fashion not dissimilar to what the Cougar football team experienced during coach Mike Leach's first year in Pullman.

In 2003-2004, Kelati's junior year, WSU showed improved to 13-16 overall and 7-11 in conference play. They barely squeaked into a Pac-10 Tournament that in those days admitted just the top eight teams, then were promptly blown out by No. 1 Stanford. Two weeks earlier, an undefeated Stanford team had miraculously pulled out a 63-61 win in Pullman when Matt Lottich somehow launched and sunk a three as time expired.

Lottich received the chance for the miracle heave after officials failed to see WSU's Marcus Moore call timeout in the waning seconds.

"They blew it," Bennett said of officials following the loss.

In other words, the Cougars were due for a big-time win over a highly ranked team. No matter that it took until the following season.

The victory helped paved the way for the glory that would follow with Low, Weaver, Cowgill and Harmeling. All of them were bright-eyed rookies when Kelati torched an Arizona team that included Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams and Channing Frye.

The memory reverberates as one of the most enduring since was founded in 1998.

Since his WSU days, Kelati has had a long and successful career playing professionally overseas. He was all set to be interviewed for this story but a miscommunication, likely stemming from his recent trip to Trident, Italy, to play for the Polish national team (he is married to a Polish woman) in an international tournament.

During his nine-year international career, he has played in Belgium, Poland, Russia and Spain. Last season, he averaged nearly 10 points per game for Valencia Basket, a club in one of Europe's most competitive leagues.

During his senior year at WSU, he was named All-Pacific-10 Conference, and finished third in school history in three-point percentage (.427), second in three-point field goals (232), eighth in assists (274) and seventh in steals (133).

But he'll be forever remembered for the day he put WSU basketball back on the map.

Thomas Kelati: First-team All-Pac-10 as a senior.

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