Cougar hoops roundup 12/8

PULLMAN -- After nearly pulling off a monumental upset of No. 25 Gonzaga on Tuesday, the Washington State men's basketball team is left with a gym bag full of "what ifs" as it prepares for a three-game road trip.

What if Jeff Varem hadn't missed all five of his shots in the first half, even though all five were taken from within five feet of the basket?

What if Thomas Kelati had merely had a decent shooting night, instead of missing eight of his 10 shots? And what if foul trouble hadn't kept the senior guard off the court for much of the first half?

What if Randy Green had been able to sustain his hot first half, when he scored 10 of his 12 points?

What if Gonzaga star Ronny Turiaf hadn't come back from a second half ankle injury?

And, most obviously, what if Josh Akognon's last-second trey had found the bottom of the net? Or what if Robbie Cowgill's putback had bounced this way instead of that way?

But as it stands, the Cougars can only take home a moral victory from Tuesday night's 54-52 loss to the Bulldogs in front of a boisterous Friel Court audience. Three days after an embarrassing 81-29 loss at No. 6 Oklahoma State, the Cougars more than hung in there with the Zags. They led by as many as 10 in the first half, led at halftime, and after a three by Akogon, led with 3:14 to play.

"We know we had a bad output in our last game, so we had to come out and show everyone that we're still here to play and play hard," Green said.

Afterward, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, "I'm not at all surprised at how well they played. Dick Bennett is one of the great coaches in all of college basketball.

"His kids have a lot of pride, and they were playing at home. They're in for a great year if they keep it up."

One point the Bulldogs coach brought up was that the unusually large crowd played a factor in how well WSU played. A hyped-up crowd of 8,151 was the largest for a nonconference game since Dec. 16, 1995, when the Cougars hosted Idaho. The crowd's, ahem, proudest moment came when Varem fouled out and the referees were serenaded with one of the loudest "bulls___!" chants you'll ever hear.

"It'd be nice if the crowd supported them like that every night," Few said. "Hopefully they continue to come out like that for the rest of the season."

After last year's debacle against Gonzaga, where the Cougars lost by 36, Tuesday's game showed how far the program has come in Bennett's second year. It also shows how good WSU can be down the road, when this freshman class gets some experience under their belt.

Despite the loss, which leaves the Cougars at 3-3, there were plenty of positives to take away from this one.

For starters, this might have been Akognon's breakout game. As one of the only Cougars to show any fire against Oklahoma State, the 5-foot-11 guard was rewarded with more playing time against the Bulldogs, and he responded with 12 points on four three-pointers. That Bennett told the freshman backup to take the last shot shows how much confidence he has in Akognon's game.

This game also marked the surprise debut of Derrick Low, who was expected to be out until late-December after breaking his right foot in the season's third practice. Low came off the bench and played 10 minutes, and while the stat line says he didn't do much (0-for-3 shooting and zeroes in every other column), if you watched closely you can tell the freshman point guard from Hawaii will be a special player down the road. On a few occasions Low made the kind of passes that no one on this team has made all year, passes that looked simple but were absolutely the correct choice at the time. The problem is, each time Low made one of these passes, his teammates failed to convert or even take the shot.

Another freshman who stepped up was Cowgill. His best play came in the first half, when one on possession he blocked consecutive shots by GU forward Sean Mallon.

Cowgill also showed good positioning, timing and some athleticism on the final play, but his up-and-under layup attempt fell short just before the buzzer.

Green also looked good throughout, although he cooled off in the second half. At the very least, the Cougars now have proven to have some depth in the backcourt with Kelati, Green, Akognon, Low and freshman Kyle Weaver. While Weaver didn't play last night, the fact that he'd started three of the previous five games shows he at least has a place on the court.

Senior guard/forward Isaiah Simmons was also impressive. Standing just 6-foot-2, Simmons held his own guarding bigger players all night, pulled down seven rebounds, and didn't make one bad decision with the ball.

On the downside, the Cougars suffered from their usual lack of size, depth and talent in the frontcourt. The fact that Simmons is even playing forward is a testament to that.

While Varem played strong and stepped it up defensively, there's no excuse for missing on three dunk attempts and two gimme layups. Senior forwards Chris Schlatter and Shami Gill were nearly invisible on offense, and both were in foul trouble trying to contain Turiaf, who scored 17 points and made 11 trips to the free throw line. Gill fouled out, and Schlatter had three fouls in just 10 minutes of action. Varem fouled out as well, and Cowgill had four fouls.

The Cougars also didn't shoot one free throw in the second half, which Bennett attributed to the team's lack of penetrators.

Tuesday's game was WSU's last true home game until Jan. 13, when they host Oregon State. WSU travels to BYU, Portland, Wyoming, UCLA and USC over the next four weeks, with "home" games against Stanford and Cal thrown in that will be played at Spokane Arena.

Speaking of Stanford, Tuesday's game was, for many, reminiscent of WSU's final home game of last year when it lost to the No. 1-ranked Cardinal at the buzzer.

"Nothing can be quite that dramatic," Green said after the Gonzaga loss. "That game was crazy. This game was hard-fought, though.

"We had our chances. We got a great shot by a great player, but sometimes it doesn't go your way."

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