COUGAR HOOPS: Focus is key as milestones loom

PULLMAN -- Sure, the Washington State basketball team, at No. 14, is the highest-rated Cougar squad since 1949. And sure, the Cougars are within shouting distance of a conference championship for the first time since taking those aspirations into the final Saturday of the 1983 regular season. And sure, the Cougs are even closer to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1994.

But the more special this season of seeming destiny becomes, the more critical it is to focus on the task at hand, not the future, says head coach Tony Bennett.

The Cougars, ranked 14th in both major polls and tied for second with USC in the Pac-10 one game behind UCLA, are 19-4 overall and 7-3 in conference play as they prep for home games this week with the Bay Area schools. They take on No. 23 Stanford (15-6, 7-3) at 7 pm Thursday and Cal (12-10, 4-6) at 2 pm Saturday. Neither game will be televised.

"If we start focusing on how we need X amount of wins to make the tournament, I think we're making a mistake," Bennett said. "This is where the goals do shift back to playing qualitative instead of quantitative."

And if the Cougars play anything like they did in their 48-47 victory over last place Arizona State on Saturday, the postseason could be a mute point. WSU guard Derrick Low and forward Daven Harmeling shouldered a large scoring burden during the first half and when they went cold in the second half against the Devils' zone defense, the Cougars went down the tubes.

With a second-half scoring drought that lasted more than 11 minutes, the Cougars scored just 12 points in the period. A 3-point shot at the buzzer by ASU's Christian Polk just rimmed out.

"All the factors went bad," said WSU forward Robbie Cowgill said. "Them pressuring us, us turning it over, getting a few charges, being tentative and not knocking down shots when we had some looks. It was a culmination and it hopefully won't happen again."

But where last season's team likey would have faltered in that situation, this team came through. Cowgill hit a short runner with 2 minutes remaining to end the drought and Low made two free throws that proved to be the game winner.

Cowgill said the lesson was learned. "We've had enough losses like that," he said. "You can learn a lesson just as well by winning that game as losing it. So we'd much rather be on this end and we feel fortunate."

The Sun Devils out boarded the Cougars 35-28. The boards will become more of a battleground this week when the Cougars welcome Stanford's Pac-10-leading rebound squad to Pullman. The Cardinal sports four players who average five or more boards per game. Twin brothers Brook and Robin Lopez gave the Cougars fits in the last meeting between the team -- a 71-68 overtime win by the Card. They had 18 collective rebounds in that contest, and Lawrence Hill chipped in nine.

Bennett said Stanford is a physical team that has improved as the season has progressed. "Sometimes you have to neutralize to the best of your ability the Lopez twins," Bennett said. "And other people have to come back and get the big amount of rebounds as Kyle Weaver did there."

Stanford has played well of late, winning four of its last five games. Stanford made a statement with a late-January homestand, knocking off both Los Angeles teams. Stanford's only loss in the five-game stretche was double overtime setback to Gonzaga on Jan. 31.

Cowgill believes that both teams have improved since the last meeting. He said Stanford was a more physical team than the Cougars expected. With that knowledge in hand, the Cougars will be ready this time. "It was a bit of a shock the last time we played them," Cowgill said.

As for California, the Golden Bears are in the midst of a four-game slide. Despite the struggles, Cowgill said he expects a battle. He cites the teams near escape on Arizona State as an example. "They are going to be hungry like ASU was," Cowgill said. ‘We're not used to this position but we've got a bit of a target on our back with a national ranking. They're going to give us their best shot and we're going to have to play great defensive ball and get back to what we do best."

In the first meeting between the teams, at Berkeley on Jan. 11, the Cougs won 73-56.

NOTABLE NOTE: Daven Harmeling was named Pac-10 Player of the Week for the second time this season after his efforts against the two Arizona schools. He drove a dagger into Arizona with 3-point basket in the waning seconds and scored a team-high 16 points in the win over ASU. Harmeling said he felt embarrassed by the accolade and thought any of his teammates were just as deserving.

"I was mad when I heard it because I'm not deserving," Harmeling said. "Pick any other guy in the starting five but not me. Give it to Ivory Clark, give it to Derrick but not me. I'm just glad we got a sweep." Bennett even joked that the committee must not have watched the second half of the Arizona State game. After Harmeling's four-point play to begin the half, the Cougars began their drought. "I teased Daven, I said all the voters must have tuned out at halftime of our Arizona State game," Bennett said with a laugh. "He felt embarrassed in getting it but that's two awards for him and it's a reflection on our team. He did do some good things and I told him he also did some knucklehead things the voters didn't see. But its good for him and for our program."

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