No doubts about where hoops program is headed

<b>PULLMAN -- If last year's first-ever Cougar win at Pauley Pavilion wasn't enough. And if the near-upset of No.1 ranked Stanford a few weeks later wasn't enough, then Saturday's stunning WSU road victory over vaunted Arizona certainly must have done the trick for anyone doubting the trajectory of the Cougar hoops program since Dick Bennett took over.

Consistency -- as you might guess from the 9-9 overall mark and 3-4 Pac-10 record -- is an issue. But there's little disagreement that the Cougars, featuring six true freshmen, at least are as far as "up, up," with "and away" seemingly on the precipice.

Built on tenacious defense and patience on offense, Bennett has the Cougar Nation paying attention to the basketball team once again.

"The (Kelvin) Sampson years were awesome, but in terms of unadulterated optimism about where this program is going, I haven't felt like this since George Raveling brought Steve Puidokas to town," one long-time Cougar watcher wrote to CF.C Sunday morning.

Indeed. Saturday put a spring in every Cougar's step.

It may be far fetched to include Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood in that camp, but you have to believe somewhere deep down the immensity of this Cougar victory touched the heartstrings of a guy who once lived and breathed Sampson's rebuilding project on the Palouse.

OVER THE LAST 20 years, Arizona and Washington State have been the Pac-10 basketball versions of Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas. But on Saturday, the Cougars pulled off an upset of Buster-like proportions, beating the 11th-ranked Wildcats in the McKale Center with a 70-63 TKO.

It was WSU's first win over Arizona since the days of Brian Quinett in 1986. The 'Cats became the Cougars' highest-ranked victim since No. 8 USC fell to WSU and Bennie Seltzer in 1992.

Since Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson took over at Arizona, the Wildcats have ruled the West Coast like Tyson once ruled the heavyweight division.

Like the ex-champ, the Wildcats have been equal parts dominant (a national championship in 1997 and numerous Pac-10 titles), intimidating (a 20-years-and-running streak of NCAA tournament appearances) and ridiculously talented (eight former 'Cats are currently on NBA rosters).

Washington State, more like Buster Douglas, has been the proverbial underdog, relying on grit and a little bit of luck in order to score big wins. The last time the Cougars finished with a winning record in the conference was in 1995. The year after that was the last time WSU played in the postseason, when the Cougs made it to the 1996 NIT.

Saturday's win was WSU's first win over a ranked opponent in their last 49 tries.

Senior guard Thomas Kelati led WSU with 27 points, tying a career-high he set last year in the same building. Kelati hit seven three-pointers, also a career-high, including a crucial trey with 50.4 seconds left. Kelati, the team's leading scorer on the season with a little over 12 points per game, also hit crucial free throws in the final seconds to put it out of reach.

What made WSU's win even more surprising was that two days ago, it seemed both teams were reverting back to their usual ways. On Thursday, Arizona (17-4, 7-2) beat No. 10 Washington in a statement-making game where the Wildcats torched the Huskies for 91 points. On the same night, WSU (9-9, 4-5) was busy losing to Arizona State, who was predicted to finish in last place in the Pac-10 during the preseason. In that game, the Cougars slit their own throats with missed free throws and blown opportunities.

Against Arizona, though, the Cougars made the shots they had to and kept the Wildcats from lighting up the scoreboard and flying up and down the court as they've been known to do.

Wildcats senior star Salim Stoudamire, who'd averaged 26 points in his last five games, scored just 11 on 4-for-14 shooting. Stoudamire had been shooting 58 percent from three-point land in the last five games, but was 0-for-5 on Saturday. Arizona's other stars -- Hassan Adams, Mustafa Shakur and Channing Frye -- scored 10, 12, and 11, respectively.

In addition to Kelati, WSU got career highs in points from freshmen Robbie Cowgill (12) and Derrick Low (13). Low made all four of his three-point tries, and Cowgill was the beneficiary of successful drive-and-kick plays from WSU's guards, including Low, who had a career-high six assists. The Hawaii-bred point guard also showed some toughness, playing one stretch with a bloody lip and hand. Senior forward Jeff Varem added 10 points and eight rebounds for WSU.


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