Saturday stakes huge for free-falling Cougars

WASHINGTON STATE's inability to close the proverbial deal -– a confounding habit aided and abetted by woeful free throw shooting, Derrick Low's ice-cold jumper and Aron Baynes' fouling propensity -– puts Saturday's game against USC in a spotlight unimaginable just two weeks ago. The Cougs' rapidly unwinding season is nearing must-win country.

With Thursday night's 67-59 home loss to Pac-10 frontrunner UCLA, WSU has now dropped four of its last five conference games -– including a stunning three consecutive at Friel Court.

With a 5-5 record in Pac-10 contests, and four of their six games after this weekend coming on the road, the Cougs' seemingly inevitable march to Madness is getting tenuous.

Forget the 17-5 overall mark, which was built largely on low-tier non-conference opponents. But do consider this: No Pac-10 team ever has been invited to the Big Dance with a .500 record in the conference's regular season.

Granted, the Pac-10, top to bottom, is tougher this season than in any other. But facts are facts: the Cougs are in a full-court tailspin.

The pressure Saturday will be immense –- and not just because they are desperate for a victory. USC has won six of their last seven – including a head-turner over UCLA -- since losing to WSU in Los Angeles back on Jan. 10. Thursday in Seattle they pounded Washington, 73-59, behind the 29 points of all-world freshman O.J. Mayo.

After a tough start to the season, USC is now 15-7 overall and 6-4 in conference games.

Thursday against the No. 5-ranked Bruins, the No. 17 Cougars looked to be up for a turnaround, forcing turnovers and hitting 60 percent of their shots for much of the game. But at crunch time, as it was against Stanford and Cal last week, things went south.

The teams were tied at 26 at halftime and again at 41 with about 10 minutes left.

The outcome, for all intents and purposes, was determined in a subsequent, 3 ½-minute span in which UCLA star freshman Kevin Love – contained much of the first half -- scored eight points and nabbed two offensive rebounds that staked UCLA to a 54-45 lead. In that wake of powder-blue destruction, Robbie Cowgill fouled out and Aron Baynes picked up his fourth.

UCLA is the one Pac-10 team that Cougar seniors have never defeated. In the history of the rivalry, WSU is 3-65 against UCLA when the Bruins are ranked in the top 25. The last WSU win over a ranked UCLA team was in March 1983, courtesy of Bryan Pollard's last-second tip-in.

The loss overshadowed another stellar effort by Cougar senior Kyle Weaver, who scored 13 points – six via very long treys – and dished off seven assists. He also had three steals, four rebounds and a blocked shot. Baynes was the only other Coug in double figures, with 11. Low continued to slump, scoring seven points on 3 of 8 shooting from the field.

With is three steals, Weaver passed Marcus Moore for third on the WSU career steals list. He needs just two points Saturday vs. USC to become the 29th player in WSU history to score 1,000 career points.

Saturday's game with USC will be televised on ABC. Tip off is at 12:30. The Village Pub in the Magnolia Neighborhood of Seattle will feature the game on its plethora of plasma screens.


WEAVER: 13 POINTS, 7 ASSISTS, 4 REBOUNDS, 3 STEALS, 1 BLOCK.


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