Missed chances in past; Akognon catching fire

PULLMAN -- It was only 13 months ago that Josh Akognon missed his first date with stardom. Back then, Akognon missed the shot that would have felled Gonzaga and put his name on the map. A month later, Akognon again came up short in a big game against Oregon. But none of those events ran through his mind last Saturday, when the sophomore combo guard's 27 points and six three-pointers –- including the go-ahead bucket with 17 seconds left –- helped Washington State upset 10th-ranked Washington.

"My mindset was at a level it's never been before," Akognon said a couple days after his virtuoso performance against the in-state rival Huskies. "I just said, ‘I have to make it. It's the No. 10 team in the country; we have to beat them.'

"I saw Robbie (WSU center Robbie Cowgill) out of the corner of my eye yelling ‘No!' But I knew in the back of my head, the way we were turning the ball over, we might not get another shot. So I just let it go."

Akognon let it go plenty against UCLA Thursday night. He scored 25 points -- all in the second half -- but the Cougs fell just short at the buzzer, 63-61, to the No. 12 Bruins.

Taling with CF.C prior to the UCLA game Thursday, Akognon said the shot that sealed the win at Washington was the biggest of his young career. But had the same scenario occurred one year ago, he might have actually listened to Cowgill and deferred to someone else.

WASHINGTON STATE FANS don't have to be reminded of the two games in question. The first came on Dec. 7, 2004, against 25th-ranked Gonzaga. Trailing by two points with 12 seconds left, the Cougars had the ball and a chance to shake up the West Coast. Head coach Dick Bennett gave the ball to Akognon, a freshman sixth-man who had been on fire all night. Akognon dribbled the ball up court and quickly tossed up an NBA-range three-pointer that clanked off the rim. Game over.

Five weeks later, the Cougars were trailing Oregon by one point with 24 seconds remaining. Akognon found himself on the free throw line with a chance to give WSU the lead and a win over another high-profile opponent. But he missed the front end of one-and-one, and the Ducks would eventually escape Pullman with a win.

For many observers, those two moments defined a freshman season which was foreign territory for a player accustomed to having his way with the ball. At Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Calif., Akognon was unquestionably, undeniably, The Man. In high school, 30-point games came as naturally to Akognon as waking up in the morning. Forty points? Those only took a little more effort. Fifty? Completely do-able.

But at WSU, Akognon was far from The Man. As part of a crowded rotation of guards, Akognon struggled at first to find a role. At 5-foot-10, he was supposed to be too small to play shooting guard. But at the same time, he didn't have a point guard's game or a point guard's mentality. In time, Akognon would come to play the role Vinnie Johnson famously played in the 1980s for the NBA's "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons – it was his job to provide points in bunches off the bench.

That was, of course, assuming he got off the bench. On some nights, Akognon would play 25 minutes. Some nights he'd play five. Some nights he'd be on the court in crunch time. Some nights he'd never take off his warm-ups. He finished the year averaging just 3.9 points in 11 minutes per game, shooting an atrocious (for him, especially) 29 percent from the field.

"A lot of the stuff (from last year), I'm letting go," Akognon said this week. "A lot of the stuff, from the Oregon free throws to the Gonzaga game, I had to let go."

HIS SECOND YEAR in the program started on a different note. Akognon was an opening day starter, dropping 22 points on UC-Riverside. Through Thursday's loss at UCLA, Akognon is averaging 10.8 points in 13 games, and has hit a team-high 32 three-pointers compared to 28 treys all of last year. His showing against Washington earned him Pac-10 Player of the Week honors.

Akognon credits some of this season's success to a conversation he had with Thomas Kelati, the Cougars' top scorer and senior leader last season. Akognon came into WSU drawing comparisons to Kelati for his shooting touch. Kelati, who is playing professionally in Belgium, attended WSU's game against Utah on Dec. 22, and pulled Akognon aside during the team's shootaround.

"He was pretty much telling me what his mindset was going into the Arizona game. (Kelati scored 27 points on seven threes in the Cougars' signature win at Arizona last season.) He said no one expects you to do it. If you failed, then you should've failed, and if you succeed than it's nothing. There's no real pressure going in. There's a lot of people there and it's the No. 10 team in the country, but if you look at it, the pressure is on them. That carried over to the Washington game," Akognon remembered of that discussion.

WASHINGTON STATE'S HOT start (9-4, 2-2) has sparked talk of a possible NCAA tournament bid. For a program that hasn't known tournament success of any kind in recent years, it's certainly an optimistic goal. And, according to Akognon, very attainable.

"The NCAA tournament is what our goal is. The NIT is a fall-back plan," he said. "If we get to the NCAA, we can make some noise. We don't want to look too far ahead, but that's our motivation. We're planning to get into the NCAAs and shut everybody up."

And if it comes down to it and the Cougars need a big shot, Akognon will be calling for the ball.

"It's a role I love to play and I'm better in playing," he said. "If I was to miss a game-winning shot, the next game I'd want it right back. It's never gonna be a case of me not having confidence. That's just the way I am."

The Cougs take on USC (11-5) Saturday in Los Angeles. Tipoff is at 5 p.m.. Host Southern Cal lost to Washington 86-77 Thursday night.

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