Resilient Cougs soar past No. 7 Arizona

BEYOND THE WHITEBOARDS and diagramming of plays, beyond the sheer athleticism on the hardcourt apparent to even the most novice of observers, really good teams have something more. It's no great mystery, it's a truism in all sports -- the ability to triumph over adversity, that certain mental toughness and resiliency. These Cougs have it, and it was on display when WSU knocked off No. 7 Arizona.

That's not to say the Cougs don't play wicked defense, can heat up on offense with the best of 'em and have a coaching staff -- headed by Tony Bennett -- that is truly clicking on all cylinders these days. They do, indeed, have all of that. But these Cougars have something else, too.

On any given night, the other guys are going to put together a run against the Cougs, probably more than just one. The officials are going to make some calls that go against the crimson troops. Heck, two critical cogs on the front lines of the crimson machinery will even run into one another in a freak collision, necessitating time on the bench getting stitched up -- that's basketball. And other Cougars who haven't played significant game minutes in days are going to have to suddenly step up and answer the call.

Yet when Big 'Mo is going the other way, the really good teams, they don't allow a 17-4 spree. They limit it to a 9-2 run. And after they've weathered the storm, the really good teams, well they respond with a counterpunch not like a pawing jab, but rather a haymaker whistling straight for the other guy's chin. And that's exactly what WSU did against against Arizona on Saturday.

ON A NIGHT when Washington State further exorcised some demons, not only against 'Zona but also against bonus time, the Cougs had lost their last eight straight overtime contests dating back to 2000 -- there was a feeling in Friel Court late Saturday night that perhaps the beginning of something very special had, finally and undeniably, arrived. The Cougs, after all, have only one senior on the entire roster this season.

And there was that senior, Ivory Clark, a force of nature in the opening minutes against Arizona, propelling Washington State to an early 10-point lead. There was Derrick Low, suffering through an uncharacteristic off night shooting but still following his shot and keeping the possession alive, dishing out assists, stealing the rock and playing stout, game-deciding defense down the stretch.

There was Robbie Cowgill, blocking shots and once again finding that deft shooting touch in the paint and a hook shot of yore. There was Kyle Weaver, who more and more is becoming that guy who just... makes... plays... and on both ends of the court.

Weaver's steal in overtime was one of the prettiest you'll ever see. After lunging -- but missing -- on the entry pass, Weaver somehow got back in position and used his long arms of the law to swoop the ball and deny what would almost assuredly have been an easy lay-up for Arizona. Weaver's outlet pass set up Chris Matthews' lay-up and a six-point lead, clinching the win.

All Weaver did Saturday night against highly regarded Arizona was lead the Cougs in rebounds (9), assists (7) and steals (3) and meanwhile Matthews, by the by, scored eight points, including two treys.

It was Daven Harmeling, however, who shined brightest on this night.

The sophomore went microwave in the second half, pouring in a career high 28 points for the game. He buried 7-of-11 from three point land in a performance both reminiscent and surpassing of his outing against Gonzaga. In each of these contests, Harmeling visited "The Zone" with shots so true, the nylon cord under the rim barely rippled, as if it were afraid to speak against a shot so pure.

LOW WAS AS off target shooting the ball against Arizona as Harmeling was against No. 1 UCLA, a winnable game the Cougs lost by three points. Harmeling has clearly since found his shot and Low, the Cougs' leading scorer, will, too. And if both of them are ever on at the same time -- and they will be at some point this season -- look out. Because it won't matter who the Cougs are playing.

But until then and in-between, the Cougs are more than capable of winning when everyone isn't dead solid perfect and despite the daunting schedule that remains -- And that's saying a lot, because the Pac-10 is the best league in the country according to most analysts. But the Cougs need only play within themselves on offense and defense, the latter being the crimson calling card, to be successful. And such a big part of that is the mental part of the game.

AT SEASON'S MIDPOINT, Washington State has already repeatedly shown the ability to hang tough no matter what gets thrown at them. Even when the shots aren't falling, they still find a way, their 14-2 mark and 3-1 league mark -- good for a share of first place in the Pac-10 -- will attest to that. Really good teams, they just find a way to win.

That's what Top 25 teams do.

THE LAST TIME Washington State was ranked in either the AP or what has now become the Coaches Poll, new bands Depeche Mode and New Order were just starting to catch on. Back then, women all over the country for some unknown reason felt compelled to don something called leg warmers over their Levis because of a movie called Flashdance.

Yea, it has been since 1983 since the name of Washington State has graced either of the polls.

Although the Nos. 21, 24 and 25 teams in the Coaches Poll don't play until later today, the guess here, following the ASU and 'Zona wins this week, and after crunching some numbers, is that the Cougars will debut at No. 23 when Monday's polls are released and, finally, put that ignominious streak to an end.

Bennett and the players downplayed the possibility of a Top-25 ranking after knocking off Arizona, and well they should. Harmeling hit the nail on the head in his post game interview, saying the Cougs need to guard against complacency, noting the win over perennial power and the No. 7 Wildcats is all well and good, but the Cougs are already thinking of next week and a split or better on the road against Stanford and Cal.

And there's certainly work to do -- the Cougs missed too many free throws against 'Zona, and the continuing rebound disparity remains a concern. But there's also no getting around two points, the first being that it's been a long time coming since the Cougar Faithful saw their hoops team ranked.

The other is that it will be an honor well deserved -- this Cougar team is good, damned good. And tough.

IN REGULATION against Arizona, the Cougs let a seven point lead slip away with less than a minute to go against the Wildcats. Instead of hanging their heads, they opened the overtime period with a 6-0 blitz. Hear that whistle? It's the sound of an uppercut headed straight for your chin, Arizona. And no one in the country has come out of halftime and steamrolled the opponent in the opening minutes as has Washington State. That trend continued Saturday.

Whatever you want to call it -- mental toughness is as good a term as any -- these Cougs have it. And it wasn't crafted in just the last few months.

THE GENESIS came three years ago when Dick and Tony Bennett arrived in Pullman. And no one with a modicum of sense should dare discount the hand the retired Dick Bennett has had in this Cougar resurgence. This 2006 team, the skills and the toughness, was forged over the elder Bennett's tutelage, and his son Tony has since taken it to the next level. The good news for Cougar fans is that coach Tony Bennett might just be as good as his dad and then some -- the early evidence is undeniably pointing that way.

There are a few tweaks and different looks this season under the younger Bennett but ultimately, Tony's message is the same as Dick's at the end of the day: You win with defense; transition defense, and integrity, hard work and passion. And you welcome whatever challenge comes your way on any given night because victory tastes just that much sweeter when it's of the hard fought variety. Bring it.

Enjoy the ride, Cougar fans, enjoy the Top 25 ranking. But also keep this in mind -- the best is yet to come.


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