How sweet it is.
OK, it’s a cliche, I know, but it’s fitting here. Two years ago, this team was last place in the Pac-10. Now, they are in the Sweet Sixteen. They have also guaranteed that for the first time ever, a Cougar team will have been in the Top 25 from the start of the season to the finish.
Think about this: the Sweet Sixteen is the farthest the Cougars have made it in the NCAA tournament since the championship game in 1941. That was before U.S. involvement in World War II. Jack Friel was the coach. My parents hadn’t even been born.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Cougars lost to Wisconsin for the championship in 1941 but held the Badgers to 39 points. WSU has now held Winthrop and Notre Dame to 40 and 41 points, respectively. The defense was tenacious Saturday holding ND to 24.5% shooting, the fifth worst shooting percentage ever for a team in the first or second rounds of the tournament.
It was no easy task, either. According to kenpom.com, Notre Dame ranks 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 40th in adjusted offensive tempo. The Irish shoot 40.5% from three, good for the 6th best percentage in the nation. Saturday the Cougs held them to 17.6%. The Irish fell into the trap of trying to run on a Wazzu team that just won’t let you do it – a common mistake by opposing coaches. At the end of the day Baynes and Cowgill limited Harangody’s offensive impact and Rochestie, Weaver and Low dominated the shooters on the perimeter. They missed open looks, yes, but in the second half especially you could see that Notre Dame was not taking the shots they wanted.
It was an incredible effort yet again. Washington State carried over their best half of the season from the Winthrop game and turned it into their most complete game of the season from start to finish against Notre Dame.
There are so many people to thank here – Dick Bennett, Tony Bennett, the players, the fans who were loud and supportive for both games in Denver, the band, the cheerleaders, the athletic department. The whole WSU community has rallied around this team the past five years and the result is another incredible season, regardless of what happens in Charlotte.
There is one more group to thank for Saturday’s game – the Washington Huskies. Seriously. In the post-game news conference, Tony Bennett mentioned two of our Husky rivals by name and explained how they had prepared us for this matchup. First, Ryan Appleby, whose quick release and distance shooting helped the Cougs prepare to defend Kyle McAlarney and ND’s other 3-point threats. Then, John Brockman, whose thunderous presence and rebounding skill inside helped prep the Cougars for Big East player of the year Luke Harangody. By playing team defense in the paint and forcing Luke out of his comfort zone, the Cougs held Harangody to 10 points on 3 of 17 shooting. Yes, he had 22 rebounds, but that stat was really an indicator of individual performance. On the team side, ND had 38 rebounds and the Cougs had 36. The Irish had 12 offensive boards; the Cougs had 8. That disadvantage had little to do with the outcome of the game. So thanks, Huskies.
It’s fitting that Dick Bennett was in Denver watching the game. Five years after a retired coach from Wisconsin took on the hardest coaching job in the Pac-10, the Cougars are a Sweet Sixteen team. That is one of the greatest turnarounds you will ever see in sports.