Cougs' stifling D on Zags points to big March

SPOKANE -- No, it was not a scene right out of "Hoosiers." Back in the day, basketball teams did not perform on national television in multimillion-dollar palaces like Gonzaga's gorgeous arena; and 6-foot-10 gazelles did not roam the perimeter while firing jump shots; and 6-2 guards did not have bodies built by Nautilus.

That said, Wednesday night's Washington State-Gonzaga clash evolved into a step back in time, a return to grinding, low-scoring hoops with nary a dunk in sight. At the same time, the game may have provided an exhilarating look into the future of Cougar basketball.

It was a night when the Cougars played defense so superbly against a very good -- not superb, but very good -- team that it forced even the most doubting of Cougar fans to realize that the impossible is no more.

Read it and don't weep: Washington State can win the NCAA championship. It won't be easy, and it won't come without heaping volumes of good luck, good health and good timing. But it can happen, because the Cougars make it so incredibly difficult to score a basket, many rivals on many nights will give up just a little bit when it matters most.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs never gave up Wednesday -- when has a Gonzaga team EVER given up? -- but it didn't matter. One could argue that the 51-47 final score Wednesday flattered the Bulldogs, who trailed virtually all the way and shot the ball like blind dogs in a meat house.

The Bulldogs, who lose a home game every time Castro loses an election, clanked 43 of 58 shots. That's 25.9 percent if you're scoring at home -- or, as Keith Olbermann once noted, even if you're by yourself.

Matt Bouldin is one heck of a young player, right? Gonzaga's scoring leader, right? Played on the national junior team last summer, right?

Bouldin, absolutely, positively fr-fr-frigid on this chilly night in Spokane, scored precisely as many points as you, me and your elderly neighbor with the bad hip and worse breath. For Bouldin's sake, let's hope Kyle Weaver does not have bad breath, because Weaver guarded Bouldin so closely, Bouldin woke up this morning wearing Weaver's dimples.

"Kyle," said Cougar coach Tony Bennett, "played very good defense against a very good player."

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Weaver's suffocating defense when a gifted player averaging 14.4 points per game like Bouldin goes 0 for 9 from the floor and puts up a giant doughnut on the score sheet. Still, Weaver was just one part of a collective defensive effort that any team would be proud to call its own.

"The Cougs deserve a ton of credit," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the Bulldogs matched their lowest point total in 11 years. "They've got tons of moxie and tons of poise, and they're hard to score on."

Mind you, Wednesday's win came against a Gonzaga squad missing perhaps the most talented player on either side -- Josh Heytvelt. The silky-smooth big man from Clarkston has yet to play this season due to a foot stress fracture that required surgery. Last year, Heytvelt led Gonzaga with 22 points in a loss at WSU.

Would the Cougars have held Gonzaga to 47 points with Heytvelt on the floor? Highly doubtful. But it is reasonably doubtful the Bulldogs would have won with Heytvelt, because they couldn't beat the Cougars last year with Heytvelt playing, and there might not be a single college team in the country that plays defense night in and night out as marvelously as Washington State.

It's not always pretty to watch, and some fans will never appreciate the beauty of snarling, sweat-stained, mug-to-mug defense. That's OK with the Cougs. They wasted enough years playing the loveable losers. Nowadays, they don't care if you love 'em, hate 'em, watch 'em or ignore 'em.

Until the Final Four, that is. Then, yeah, the Cougs don't want to be ignored. In fact, they hope the entire nation is watching when they attempt to make the impossible … possible.

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