Cougars' NCAA Tourney hopes all but dashed

THERE HAVE BEEN plenty of dramatic finishes for Washington State against the Sun Devils in the past. Junior forward Abe Lodwick had a chance to add another, but his 3-pointer rimmed off at the buzzer as Arizona State won its first Pac-10 home game, 71-69, Saturday and likely ended any chance the Cougars had for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

If there was doubt before the game, there isn't much left now. Washington State will likely have to win the Pac-10 tournament to gain a bid to the Big Dance.

On Saturday, unlike some of the past heroics between the teams, such as Taylor Rochestie's 3-pointer in overtime to win the game in 2009 at Friel Court, WSU (17-10 overall, 7-8 Pac-10) was fortunate to have an opportunity at the end.

Despite playing a seemingly overmatched Sun Devils' team, which was without its second- and third-leading scorers in Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks, the Cougars looked lethargic in the first half as they turned the ball over 12 times that led to 21 ASU points. The Sun Devils (10-16, 2-12) held a 40-28 advantage at halftime.

But similar to many games in Ken Bone's two-year tenure on the Palouse, where WSU plays well in one half and poorly during the other, the Cougars methodically cut into a lead that grew to as many as 16 points early in the second half.

WSU clawed all the way back and then some, taking its first lead of the second half, 57-56, when junior wing Klay Thompson found Lodwick for an open 3-pointer with 7 minutes, 30 seconds, left.

The Cougars never could find any consistency at the free-throw line, though. They converted just 14 of 25 attempts from the stripe, and ASU appeared to have the game won when sophomore Trent Lockett converted a pair of free throws to take a 68-62 lead with 46.4 seconds left.

"When it's a close game, I think the first thing people look at are free throws," Bone said during a postgame radio interview.

Thompson, who finished with a game-high 28 points after being scoreless at halftime, hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. Lockett then split his free throws, sandwiched by a Thompson field goal, on the Sun Devils' next two series.

That gave WSU one final opportunity with 6.5 seconds left. Sophomore point guard Reggie Moore drove into the lane, but was sealed off by an ASU defender before finding Lodwick open. Lodwick has made 3-of-4 treys before that shot.

"He was feeling confident and had a good look," Bone said. "I don't think I could've drawn up a better shot."

BUT THE COUGARS should not have needed last-second heroics to beat the Sun Devils. Not when their NCAA hopes were bleak even before the game.

For perspective, WSU's last two NCAA Tournament teams in 2007 and '08 both finished with 6-3 records in road Pac-10 games. The Cougars are 2-6 in conference away games this season.

It did not help that Thompson was benched to start the game — Brock Motum started in his place.

"I didn't like the fact that we started out with Klay on the bench," Bone said. "But unfortunately he was a few minutes late for the team bus."

Magnifying their offensive problems, WSU could not contain freshman Chanse Cheekmur, who entered the game averaging 2.3 points per contest. He made five 3-pointers en route to 18 points.

"They had two of their best players out and people stepped up," Casto said. "A couple of guys had a career game."

And similar to the Cougars' game against Stanford, when they overcame a large halftime deficit to take a second-half lead before losing, those combination of factors were too much to overcome.

"We battled back and competed," Bone said. "But we've got to do that for 40 minutes against anyone we played."

Bone and Casto agreed that WSU's only prospect at qualifying for the NCAA Tournament likely entails winning the Pac-10 Tournament.

"It's definitely slipping away," Casto said. "That's the most frustrating thing about it. I know we're one of the best 68 teams in the nation."

NOTABLE NOTE:

  • Walk-on freshman Will DiIorio, who played a career-high 20 minutes against the Sun Devils. Bone praised his focus. He had a number of key plays and provided the Cougs a spark. On the flip-side, DiIorio missed a layup with 1:05 left that would have cut ASU's lead to two points. Instead, the ball went out of bounds and another opportunity, one of many, slipped away from the Cougs.