Hoops: Chief Joseph turning in grave after Washington State collapse in second half leads to season's end

IN THE MIDST OF a 16-2 run that would help Washington State build a 19-point lead in the first half of Thursday's Pac-12 Tournament game against Colorado, the poet color analyst Bill Walton declared, "the Cougars are playing with the confidence of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce." Somewhere thereafter the history lesson seemed to be lost on the Cougs.

Whereas Chief Joseph only conceded defeat -- "I will fight no more forever" -- after a brilliant fight had turned hopeless, the Cougars seemingly put up the white flag after they built a 30-11 lead for themselves late into the first half. 

Indeed, from that point forward, Colorado slashed, dashed and slammed with abandon through the Las Vegas night. Led by Derrick White, who finished with 26 points after a tough first half, the Buffs outscored the Cougars 62-33 following that crimson high water mark and won going away, 73-63. WSU's season ends with a 13-18 overall record and 6-12 mark in Pac-12 play. 

The Cougars were so anemic in the second half that Walton went full Walton, saying the earth was weeping. Indeed, the four glorious hills of Pullman -- Pioneer, Sunnyside, Military and College -- were in tears, said the big red head, "and the folks at Grand and Main are wondering what happened to their Cougars."

Ernie Kent, in describing the first half, said it was probably the best basketball WSU had played in a pressure-packed situation in his three years at Washington State. But the seeds for the second half downturn were also sown in that first half, said Kent.

“I thought we were outstanding defensively and offensively (but) as we went on towards the end of the first half, I thought the momentum of the game changed drastically with a couple (travels) and five fouls that we committed. So there were seven straight calls in a row I thought against us, and our own fault, that took the momentum that we had going in at halftime,” said Kent.

Still, WSU held a 41-27 lead at the break.  The Cougs shot 56.7 percent from the floor over the first 20 minutes while holding Colorado to 8 of 25 shooting. WSU led the rebounding battle 17-15 and had outscored CU 18-12 in the paint.  But then “that stretch” seen so often this season popped up again, Kent said: WSU playing well for about 30 minutes.

“We get a little bit fatigued, a little worn down and that might be because we don’t have as deep of a bench,” said Kent.

Viont'e Daniels (19 minutes) and Robert Franks (10 minutes) were the only bench players seeing time for WSU on Wednesday. Kent also pointed to the fatigue factor with true freshman Malachi Flynn towards the end of the season. Flynn went 0-6 against Colorado and was held scoreless.

“He’s lost his legs, he had a lot of looks in the game that probably could have made a bigger difference if he’s shooting the ball the way he’s capable of shooting,” said Kent.

Colorado's comeback brought them to a tie at 49 and then the lead at 52. The Cougs knotted it at 52 but couldn't keep pace. Their last look at the sun was pulling to within 62-60 on a nifty pass and shoot by Hawkinson and Clifford.

In the end, Kent looed at the big picture. He saluted his four seniors – Josh Hawkinson, Ike IroegbuCharles Callison and Conor Clifford – for elevating the bar at WSU.  All four went out shooting, as each scored in double figures against Colorado (see box score below).

“This is one of the better chemistry teams I’ve coached … What I continue to do with the fans in Pullman is to remind them, again, that any success this program will have was built on their backs,” said Kent.

WSU has not won a first-round game in the Pac-12 tourney since defeating an Oregon team coached by Kent in 2009.

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