Hoops: Vocal Coug fans climbing on bandwagon

SEATTLE -- Forget the furious second-half defense. Forget the 21-0 scoring run. Forget Kyle Weaver's all-world performance at both ends of the court. Or Robbie Cowgill's clutch rebounding and scoring. Or the best start to a Cougar season in 15 years. The most memorable part of WSU's 64-54 win over San Diego State at Key Arena on Thursday was what happened after the final horn sounded.

The crowd, estimated at nearly 6,000, stayed put and belted out the fight song.

Hardly a soul headed for the exits. They had just watched a very solid team overcome a wretched first half of basketball to win going away. The fans wanted to relish the moment. They stood, clapped and sang.

So fight, fight, fight for Washington State ...

It was a fitting cap to their racuous support of the Cougs in the second half, turning up the volume every time San Diego State came down on offense.

Tony Bennett and his basketball team are capturing the collective imagination of the Cougar Nation.

Mind you, this wasn't just some patsy opponent. San Diego State is the reigning Mountain West champion and a perennial threat for the post-season. Their head coach, Steve Fisher, has 299 career victories, including the 1989 national championship while at Michigan.

DOWN BY 10 AT halftime, due to cold shooting and lapses on defense, the Cougars looked like the Cougars of season's past. But these aren't the boys of old. They stormed back in the second half with tenacious defense. After 12 minutes, the Aztecs had managed just four points. On offense, the Cougs nailed four of their first five second-half shots -- Weaver accounting for six of those points.

At 11-1, these Cougs are the hottest-starting WSU squad since Kelvin Sampson's club of 1991-92 began 12-0.

They're No. 38 in the latest Associated Press poll. That's not quite the Top 25, but given the places we've been since Mark Hendrickson and Ike Fontaine were last seen in crimson, it's downright rarefied air.

The buzz on these cats has been growing all season, with the big win over Gonzaga fueling the intrique. And now comes the start of Pac-10 play next Thursday -- against UCLA, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

The old joke about the Cougar "drinking team" having a "basketball problem" is quickly fading.

No one did more for the cause Thursday than Weaver, the junior swingman from Beloit, Wisc., who notched his first-ever double-double. He scored 16 points, all in the second half, and pulled down a team-leading 11 rebounds. He also dished off four assists, blocked a shot and put the second-half clamps on San Diego State sharpshooter Brandon Heath.

NOTABLE NOTES:

* The Cougars entered the game yielding 9.9 offensive rebounds per game and held the Aztecs to a pair of offensive boards.

* WSU entered the game leading the Pac-10 in 3-point shooting at 40.7 percent. The Cougs were 1-for-12 in the first and missed 15 of first 16 beyond the arc before finishing 4-for-19.

* Junior forward Robbie Cowgill tallied a career-high 17 points. He also starred in last year's Cougar Hardwood Classic at Key Arena, scoring 14 points in a win over Utah.

* True freshman guard Nikola Koprivica made his first career start for the Cougs and responded with a season- and career-high 11 points -- including the first five points of the game (by either team). He played 26 minutes. "One of the reasons I started him is I like Ivory Clark coming off the bench. I wanted to go with more mobility. I don't think Aron Baynes's ankle is quite right yet. Nikola gives us another ball handler on the floor," said Tony Bennett.


MAC HOPSON


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