COMMENTARY and PHOTOS: Card over Cougs

WASHINGTON STATE COMMITTED A cardinal sin on Saturday -- one that portends big-time trouble for their March Madness plans. Foiled by atrocious free throw shooting in the clutch, they were undone in overtime by Stanford 67-65. It marked the second straight home defeat for the Cougs with mighty UCLA and dangerous USC up next.

The Cougars remain a glossy 17-4 overall but they finished their first swing through the Pac-10 at 5-4. And that spells trouble for two simple reasons.

The first is that the Cougars are showing no signs of stepping up their game.

The second and perhaps more telling reason for worry is this: No Pac-10 team with a .500 regular season in-conference record has ever -- ever! -- been invited to the Big Dance.

And right now, the way the Cougs are playing and the way the rest of the conference is playing, a 9-9 Pac-10 record looks more than just possible.

The notion of a Pac-10 title seems quaint at this point. WSU is getting desperately close to becoming a tournament bubble team.

In a conference as good as the Pac-10, losing at home is a no-no. Two in a row -- for the ninth-ranked team in the nation -- is blasphemy.

And now the Bruins, who have a decades-old spell over the Cougs, are coming to town, with a vastly improved Trojan team right behind them.

Cougar head coach Tony Bennett lauded his guys Saturday for playing "their hearts out, with passion."

"They fought like crazy and got to the spot where we could have put it away and come up on top, but we didn't.

Say it again coach, say it again.


DERRICK LOW DRIVES BY KENNY BROWN. LOW HAD 19 POINTS VS. CARD, INCLUDING GAME'S FIRST FIVE.

The Cougs led by nine at one point in the second half. But Stanford came roaring back. The Cougs had a chance to put it away, but couldn't hit their free throws.

The Cougs committed just four turnovers, while Stanford had a whopping 17, yet they lost.

So now the season of destiny is starting to look like a season on the brink.

It's clear that the lone senior on last season's Cinderella Cougs, Ivory Clark, was more than the sum of his parts. He was a shot-blocking phenom and this current team has no one filling that role. He was an athletic post defender -- a combination that no rotation of Baynes, Cowgill, Harmeling or Forrest can duplicate. And he was instant energy on offense, with nitro-burnin' slam dunks that brought the faithful to their feet.

The question facing Bennett and his staff isn't so much how you replace Clark as it is figuring out how to find Clark's production -- key defensive stops here, a couple of points and rebounds there -- in the critical second periods when Aron Baynes' penchant for foul trouble rears its head.

When the threes aren't falling, when the free throws are clanking, when the fouls mounts, one play, one player, can save you.

The Cougs need someone to step up their play. Robbie Cowgill looks like he might be coming out of his stupor. That's a great place to start.

"It wasn't a lack of effort, our kids came out focused, a very good defensive effort for the most part," Bennett said. "It stings, it sure does."

The sting is sharper when you consider the five conference wins the Cougars have -- all but one of them a nailbiter. And the four losses they have? Two were mostly lopsided affairs and two others a failure to perform in crunch time.

"We've got our plate full every time we go out on the floor and we need to be clicking on all cylinders," Bennett said. "It's tough. You're going to be in tight games, you have to finish down the stretch. We need to bounce back. It's not so much the quality of our play right now, we've just lost some close ones."

The upcoming games against UCLA and USC will be a true test of Bennett's immense coaching skills and the grit of his players.

A pair of wins, and the office water cooler talk can get back to bracketology. One loss and the questions remain. Two lossess and it'll be time to start sprinkling the conversation with a little NIT.


KYLE WEAVER HAD 23 POINTS AND 11 REBOUNDS. HE NOW HAS 985 CAREER POINTS.


TAYLOR ROCHESTIE'S FLYING LAY-IN TRY JUST MISSED IN THE FINAL SECONDS OF THE OVERTIME PERIOD.


ROBBIE COWGILL HAD 4 REBOUNDS AND 11 POINTS IN 34 MINUTES.


DAVEN HARMELING HAD A TOUGH DAY, SCORING NO POINTS AND GRABBING 2 REBOUNDS IN 26 MINUTES.


ARON BAYNES HAD HIS HANDS FULL WITH THE LOPEZ BROTHERS, GETTING JUST 2 REBOUNDS AND 3 POINTS BEFORE FOULING OUT.


ROBBIE COWGILL BATTLES THE BUSHY-HAIRED LOPEZ BROTHER.


TRAILING BY THREE, WEAVER IS FOULED BEYOND THE ARC BY LAWRENCE HILL IN WANING MOMENTS OF OVERTIME. HE MADE 2 OF THE SUBSEQUENT 3 FT ATTEMPTS.


ROCHESTIE FINISHED WITH 7 POINTS AND 5 ASSISTS.


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