7-year itch: '98 last WSU hoops win in Valley

PULLMAN -- Washington State's 60-47 win over USC last Saturday meant more than an opportunity to regain confidence lost from an anemic showing against UCLA. Outstanding defense and respectable second-half offense against the Trojans coincided with the return of Derrick Low to the starting lineup. Low, recovering from a broken bone in his right foot, will be back full-time when WSU travels to the Willamette Valley this week, where they will confront a seven-season run of futility.

After missing eight games with a foot injury, Low played sparingly off the bench in the Cougars' embarrassing 50-30 loss to UCLA last Thursday. Low checked in for just eight minutes against the Bruins, recording one assist and one turnover. It was part of head coach Dick Bennett's plan to slowly re-work the sophomore point guard into the rotation.

Low started against USC, playing 26 minutes and notching five points, three assists, one steal and three turnovers. Bennett admitted in his weekly press conference that he'd played Low more minutes than originally planned against the Trojans.

"He was able to play and that was good. I don't know when he'll be able to make that much of a difference, but it was good to have him out there," Bennett said of Low. "He was a factor, and he helped us (against USC), but he's not 100 percent."

Bennett clarified that while Low isn't feeling any pain in his foot, his conditioning and game-time reflexes are not up to snuff. In practices this week, Low looks closer to form than he did last week. His shot has been falling, but he has struggled at times with on-the-fly decision-making.

Low will be tested Thursday at Oregon State and Saturday at Oregon, as the Cougars (11-10 overall, 4-8 in the Pac-10) face two teams with highly capable lead guards.

The Ducks boast junior Aaron Brooks (11 points per game, 4.5 assists), a McDonald's All-American at Seattle's Franklin High who is known for his quickness and speed with the basketball. Beaver guard Chris Stephens (12.5 pointer per game, 43 percent three-point shooting) doesn't have Brooks' name recognition, but he did drop 23 points on WSU last month.

In Bennett's three-year tenure at WSU, his teams have yet to win a game on its Oregon road trip. In all, the Cougars have not won in Oregon in seven seasons.

The Ducks and Beavers each beat WSU in Pullman last month.

Since Low went out with his injury, Bennett has mixed and matched lineups on a seemingly daily basis. For the Oregon series, indications from practice are that Low and Kyle Weaver will start in a two-guard lineup next to a frontline of Robbie Cowgill, Aron Baynes and Caleb Forrest. Also a possibility --- especially against the smaller, faster Ducks --- is a three-guard lineup with Baynes, Cowgill, Low, Weaver and Josh Akognon or Chris Matthews in the fifth spot.

Monday was the first time all season Bennett hinted at a greater postseason goal than the Pac-10 tournament. On that day he spoke to the players in practice about what it would take for WSU to make the NIT. Speaking to the media, Bennett said as long as the Cougars finish the season above .500, they have a shot.

Would the recent changes in the NIT selection process help the Cougars?

"Only because I'm old and those people are somewhat familiar with my teams," Bennett joked. "Maybe they'll have pity on an old guy."

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