DERRICK LOW HITS 2 OF HIS 18
LOS ANGELES -- Quick now. All those who expected Washington State to blow out Oregon, line up over there. Thought so. Pretty lonely, ain’t it? Ah, but for 20 minutes Thursday evening, Wazzu fans were permitted to dream the dream. The Cougars, tormented by Oregon for so many years, could do no wrong in the first half. The Ducks, looking dismal at best and befuddled at worst, could do no right.
“I never would have thought we would play a half that poorly on this floor, because we’ve been so good down here in this tournament,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent muttered.
Indeed, the Ducks won last year’s Pac-10 Tournament, and only Arizona has won more games or titles at the tournament than Oregon. And it is to the Ducks’ credit that they rallied gamely before the Cougars were able to escape the Staples Center with a 75-70 victory that keeps alive their goal of winning a conference championship for the first time in a mere 67 years.
How time flies when you’re losing far more games than you win. These, however, are not your father’s Cougars. They’re one of the best teams in the country, and for one half Thursday, they were as good as anyone, anywhere, anytime.
“Washington State was tremendous in the first half,” Kent said.
“That was one of the best starts we’ve had against a quality team,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said. “Obviously, we needed that cushion.”
With Derrick Low drillin’ 3’s and Taylor Rochestie dishin’ and drivin’ and Kyle Weaver makin’ some of the sweetest passes since Brad Pitt stopped going to singles bars, the Cougars were literally unstoppable. It didn’t hurt that Oregon came out flatter than Iowa -- the state, not the basketball team.
“We didn’t come out with a whole lot of energy,” understated Oregon forward Maarty Leuning.
“We looked like a team that looked like it was playing under pressure,” teammate Malik Hairston added.
And the reason, Malik?
“If I had an answer to that one,” Hairston replied, “we definitely wouldn’t have looked that sluggish.”
Oregon came back from the dead by shooting 58 percent from the field in the second half against one of the premier defensive teams in the country. Leading the way -- presumably with a periscope -- was 5-foot-6 sophomore Tajuan Porter, Oregon’s decimal point guard.
Porter scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half, occasionally taking the ball to the rack when not draining 3’s from downtown. The Cougars had mixed results trying to tame Mini-Me -- er, Porter -- by running the 6-6 Weaver and 6-10 Robbie Cowgill at Porter to try to block a) his shots and b) the sun, for all Porter could tell from his (extremely low) vantage point.
Asked when he last guarded a player as short as Porter, Weaver smiled and said, “Oh man -- probably a little cousin or somebody. He’s quick. He’s tough.”
6-10 COWGILL VS. 5-6 PORTER.
You don’t have to convince Cowgill, who was not thrilled about the prospect of the incredibly quick Porter leaving him spinning like a Texas top in front of God, country and thousands of eyewitnesses.
“He said he got scared,” Bennett said with a grin that bordered on evil.
Fortunately for Cowgill, all he has to deal with tonight at 8:30 is a pair of supremely talented 7-footers. Twin towers/brothers Brook and Robin Lopez are a handful, as they’ve demonstrated in Stanford’s two wins over WSU this season.
No doubt WSU’s bid to play for the tournament championship for the first time will be determined largely by Cowgill’s ability to deal with the Lopez twins at both ends of the floor. The Cougars come into the contest (8:40 p.m., FSN) with momentum built from a 3-0 sweep of the Ducks this season, and Bennett had a ready answer when asked how difficult it is to beat a Pac-10 opponent three times in one season.
“I hope it’s impossible,” Bennett said dryly, “starting with our (next) game.”