Cougs tourney tested by Beaver scare?

NO MATTER THAT Oregon State came into the contest with 18 losses and only three Pac-10 wins. WSU coach Tony Bennett -- a possible tie with UCLA for the conference crown dancing in his head -- challenged his Cougs to play like champions on Saturday. In the first half, they looked more like chumps. But in the second, fueled by Aron Baynes, they played their trademark defense and hit the key shots.

"I was pleased with our guys in the second half," Bennett told Bud Namek of the Cougar Sports Radio Network. "That was a very physical game.

"In the second half, we played very hard basketball, (NCAA) tournament-level basketball. We tightened up defensively and handled ourselves pretty well physically."

Calling the win "significant," Bennettt added, "I really challenged them to play like a championship team -- and we did in the second half."

The No. 9-ranked Cougars, 23-5 overall and 12-4 in Pac-10 play, are two games behind frontrunner UCLA and one game in front of third-place USC. WSU hosts both schools this week in televised games that already are sold out. To tie for the title would require two wins, plus a Husky defeat of UCLA on Saturday.

On Saturday at Oregon State, Baynes came off the bench and turned in 22 game-saving minutes for WSU.

He scored eight straight at one juncture to put WSU in front 47-45. And then, with eight seconds left in the game, he iced the victory with two free throws to put WSU up by what would be the final score, 58-54.

Baynes finished the night with 14 points and six rebounds. Eight of his points came from the free throw line as the Cougs worked to exploit OSU's difficulties in the post containing the 6-10, 270-pounder from Australia.

"Because it was a physical game, both teams wore down," Bennett said. "We were able to get the ball inside to Aron Baynes. If you get it to him deep enough, the opponent's size doesn't matter because he is so big."

As for his work at the charity stripe, Baynes said, "That's what wins games down the stretch, free throws. Those were pretty big free throws (at the end) -- I just thought about how many times I'd done it before in practice."

Said Bennett, "When he spreads out down low, he's a load. I've got to take my hat off to him."

Baynes wasn't the only Cougar to come up big. Point guard Mac Hopson -- a Portland native -- drilled a jumper with 35 seconds left to break a tie and put WSU on top 56-54. And Robbie Cowgill chipped in 12 points on the night and pulled down six rebounds.

The Cougars trailed 32-27 at halftime and fell beind by as much as eight in the second half before turning up the defense. Oregon State made only one of its last 13 field goal attempts. For the game, the Beavs shot 37 percent from the field and the Cougs 50 percent.

NOTABLE NOTES:

The Cougars' 23 wins is the most since 1982-83 (23) and six Pac-10 road victories ties for most in school history (1979-80).

The Cougars clinched at least third place in the Pac-10, thus securing their best finish since a second place showing in 1982-83.

Washington State trailed at halftime for the first time in 12 games. The last deficit at intermission was 27-24 to No. 7 Arizona, Jan. 6 in Pullman.

The Cougars held Oregon State without a field goal for 6:35 in the second half. That's the eighth time this season WSU has held a foe without a field goal for at least five minutes.

Redshirt-sophomore guard Taylor Rochestie made his first start in a Washington State uniform (made 25 starts at Tulane in 2004-05 season).

Tony Bennett on the upcoming showdown in Pullman with UCLA: "I think there's going to be a lot of energy in the building Thursday night. That might be the understatement of the season."

FoxSports on Saturday put forth the names of the four players it believes should contend for Pac-10 Player of the Year honors. WSU's Kyle Weaver was one of the four. He is among the league leaders in assists, steals, blocks and rebounds, and ranks 17th in scoring. FoxSports' other nominees are UCLA's Aaron Afflalo, USC's Nick Young and Oregon's Aaron Brooks.

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