Right then I thought, let's see if this Cougar team has changed. Because how many times last season were the Cougars in a game with five minutes remaining, only to collapse almost every time? Washington State wasn't that bad last season for 35 minutes. But the final five minutes, the Cougars were dreadful.
It's only one game, a far too small sample to say this team's mindset to finish games has changed. But one game, one positive outcome, as the Cougars beat California 69-66. This almost certainly was a game Washington State would have kicked away a year ago.
The Bears made some plays down the stretch. But the Cougars, unlike a year ago, matched those plays with scores of their own. Only twice did Cal get to within one possession of tying the game, and the second time came on the mistaken timeout by Ike Iroegbu (pictured above) with two seconds left.
The Cougars hit shots, and made California pay for fouling, converting 10 of 12 free throws during the final 1:44 Washington State didn't show anything close to this sort of final-minute toughness a year ago. (Iroegbu by the way went 4-4 from the line during that stretch.)
It was a baby step, one this program needs as it tries returning to prominence. Another step can come Saturday, when the Cougars play their third road game of the young Pac-12 season at Washington.
Washington State hasn't won in its past three trips to Seattle, and last year was a complete disaster, a 72-49 beatdown by the Huskies. If ever there was a time to catch Washington, it might be now. The once-high flying Huskies, winners of their first 11 games this season and at one time ranked No. 13 in the land, ride a three-game losing streak into Saturday's Apple Cup contest.
A win would put WSU at 2-1 in league, a record almost no one outside of the Cougar locker room thought was possible. With a full slate of league home games remaining, coach Ernie Kent's first season in Pullman might warm up this cold winter.
The week ahead: Just a single game, Washington State (7-7, 1-1) at Washington (11-3, 0-2) at noon Saturday at Alaska Airlines Arena, televised by the Pac-12 Network.
Remember last season's all-consuming talk about Ken Bone and his coaching hot seat? Now it appears the coaching seat of Lorenzo Romar is getting warm in Seattle, where the Huskies are trying to flush what was a top-25 season into the sewer.
So-so basketball doesn't sell well. Washington hasn't been to the NCAAs in four years. The Huskies were only two games over .500 the past two years. A loss to the Cougars would send UW spiraling to 0-3 in league. It's not exactly what Husky faithful were thinking just over two weeks ago after a 66-57 win over Tulane put UW at 11-0 and at the brink of the top 10.
Truth is, Washington isn't a top 10 team, and probably not a top 25 team, either. But the Huskies are better than an 0-3 Pac-12 team. Which means the Cougars had better play their best game of the season just to make the final five minutes relevant.
Statistically, the difference between Washington and Washington State this season is defense. Both teams average 70.4 points a game. But the Huskies give up 12 fewer points a game, at 60.9 points.
The Huskies' defense is underscored by their Pac-12 best field goal percentage defense of .349, which is almost a full tenth of a point better than the Cougars at .448. UW is also among the league leaders in 3-point defense at .299. The Husky defense is particularly inside, where they lead in the league in blocked shots at 7.3 per game. Curiously, Washington is last in the Pac-12 in steals at 4.5 a game.
Washington has four double-digit scorers, ranging from 10 to 13 points a game. The Huskies' most dynamic offensive performer is point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who leads the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) and assists (6.7 pg). Williams-Goss' backcourt mate, Andrew Andrews, is second in scoring at 11.9 per game.
Williams-Goss is coming off his worst scoring game of the season, where he shot 3 of 11 and scored just eight points against Stanford.
Inside, the Huskies have the duo of Robert Upshaw and Shawn Kemp Jr., who combine for 22 points and 12 rebounds a game. The value of the 7-foot Upshaw is particularly noticeable on defense, where he averages 4.5 blocked shots per game. But Upshaw can also score, as he has reached double figures in his past seven games.
Notable note: Washington has dominated this series of late, even though the Cougars broke through and beat the Huskies 72-67 in Pullman last season. Dating back to the 2011 Pac-12 tournament, UW has won seven of the past eight games against the Cougars.
Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel
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