Hoops: Cougs break nine-year drought

SPOKANE -- In a town where notions of a Final Four run by the beloved Zags is gaining more currency, it was Washington State's perennially hapless Cougars -- playing here because Pullman is empty with the Christmas break -- who broke the shackles of history. They rung in the New Year on Friday with a convincing, defense dominated 60-51 win over Stanford.

The Cougars had lost 17 straight to the Cardinal, last tasting victory way back in February of 1996.

Last March, as No. 1-ranked Stanford was steaming toward its second straight Pac-10 title, the Cougars dropped a 63-61 heartbreaker to the Card on a miracle three-pointer basket at the buzzer.

In yet another sign that second-year head coach Dick Bennett's reshaping of the Cougar program is taking serious hold, senior Jeff Varem and Thomas Kelati paced the Cougars on the boards and in the net last night as the Cougars led the Card almost from start to finish.

Varem poured in 18 points -- all in the second half -- and pulled down 12 rebounds while blocking three shots and dishing off three assists. Kelati offered up 17 points, six boards, two assists and one block.

The Cougars are now 6-4 on the season and play host here to Cal tomorrow before hitting the road for two with the LA schools next week.

The win over Stanford also marked the Cougars' first in a Pac-10 opener since beating Washington in 1999.

Almost remarkably, given Stanford's dominance in the series and the Cougars'proclivity this season for tight finishes -- their previous four games, including one with Gonzaga, were decided be three or fewer points -- WSU won this one without a heartpounding race to the buzzer. The Cougars were up eight-to-ten for most of the second half.

The Cougars did it with their typical tough defense, holding 6-5 Stanford to its lowest scoring total of the season. But the Cougs also did it on offense, shooting 45 percent from the field -- a season high.

The Cougars' feat was accomplished by sticking to a rotation of just six players. Varem, Kelati, Derrick Low and Chris Schlatter each played between 30 and 38 minutes, while Robbie Cowgill and Shami Gill each contributed 20-plus. No one else played more than six minutes.

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