To call this one a classic would be a disservice. It was 50 minutes of punches and counterpunches, jabs and hooks. It was Ali and Frazier, LaMotta and Robinson, and Balboa and Creed. It was a nearly three-hour long advertisement for the power and passion of college hoops. It was for second place in the Pac-10. And given the way the Huskies are now playing, the winner would get the harder first round draw -- presuming ASU doesn't knock off the Dawgs -- in next week's conference tourney, while the loser would get Stanford.
This was for pride, momentum, and perhaps a 3 or 4 seed for the Cougars in the NCAA tournament.
In the end, powered by Aron Baynes ' career-high 25 points and perfect shooting touch (10 of 10 from the field) and Taylor Rochestie 's clutch shooting behind the arc and at the free throw line, Washington State prevailed 88-86.
The sell-out crimson crowd, deafening almost throughout, was rewarded with a proverbial cherry on top of this mostly-magical regular season. With 24 wins and 6 losses, the Cougs are the third-winningest team in school history. Given the two teams they're now rubbing shoulders with, the post-season outlook should be bright. The 1917 club, which won 25, has a national championship banner hanging from the rafters of Beasley Coliseum. And the 1941 team, with 26 wins, advanced to the NCAA title game before falling to Wisconsin.
"I wanted our guys to hunger and want it," Bennett said. "We wanted it bad and it was hard fought .. We were playing for sole possession of second place and that's important for this program.
"It felt like we've been on that heartbreak deal a few times and it was time for that not to happen," he added.
Two of those heartbreakers came against the Ducks -- one last week in Eugene and another on Jan. 27 in Pullman when two free throws with .05 seconds left sent the game into OT.
"I reminded them not to do what you did in the Oregon game," Bennett said, when asked what he told his troops. "I said we need this, it's preparing us for NCAA tournament ... This is preparing us for hard tournament basketball. I said keep fighting. You've got your home crowd and you've got your players."
Editor's commentary: While all evidence points to Trojan coach Tim Floyd being a good guy, heck, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that while we found your histrionics quite compelling on Saturday night, Tim, doggone man, say it, don't spray it.
While it looked like Bennett and Floyd were getting after each other, Bennett said that wasn't the case and called the interlude a misunderstanding. See Cougfan TV to see Bennett describe the situation
The Cougars, on the strength of six consecutive free throws by Rochestie, who finished with 21 points, proceeded to score nine points in the final minute.
The game's other big hero (literally) was Baynes, the 6-10, 270-pound sophomore center from Australia. He erased the Cougars' five-point halftime deficit with nine consecutive points to start the second period. Nine of his 25 points came in the overtimes, which he played with four fouls.
"I was trying to play my game," Baynes said. "It was all the rest of the guys. They got me the easy shots and I just finished it off."
Said Rochestie, "He's gotten so much better -- he's too big to handle with just one player and that's going to help us in the tournament."
Baynes came off the bench seven minutes into the first period to replace senior Ivory Clark, who was struggling on defense and 0-for-4 with some ill-advised shots on offense. Clark never returned to the game. Bennett, who like his father, orchestrates his bench differently every game depending on the flow, said Clark -- a critical cog for the Cougars all season -- simply wasn't on, so he decided to use those minutes more efficiently.
Baynes, slowed for much of the year by ankle injuries, has given the Cougs a refreshing new dynamic heading into the postseason. He has averaged 16 points the past three games, drawing an extra defender every time he gets the ball. Baynes' presence opens the perimeter for the sharp shooters like Derrick Low, who recorded 14 after just a two-point performance against UCLA. But Baynes still knows the bread-and-butter of Bennett Ball.
"I go out there with the mentality to rebound and play defense," Baynes said. "I don't see myself and one of the team's scorers. We have plenty of guys that can knock down shots."
The Cougars battled through both overtimes with the same lineup. Kyle Weaver played 48 minutes, Rochestie 43, Low 40, Robbie Cowgill 39 and Baynes 34. Unlike the Jan. 27 loss to Oregon, the team did not run out of gas in overtime.
"It came down to big plays and who was going to do it in the end," Rochestie said. "Every time it seemed like we had a tiny cushion they hit a three."
PAC-10 TOURNEY NOTES:
WASHINGTON STATE PAC-10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE KYLE WEAVER ONCE AGAIN CAME UP HUGE AGAINST USC ON SATURDAY. THE JUNIOR HAD 15 POINTS, 13 BOARDS (6 offensive), 5 ASSISTS, 3 BLOCKS AND 3 STEALS IN THE COUGAR VICTORY
THE PAC-10 TOURNAMENT BRACKET
THE PAC-10 TOURNAMENT BRACKET