Hill scores over Baynes (AP John Miller)
Washington State (12-9, 4-5) was looking for a sweep of the Arizona schools Saturday morning in Tucson. The Arizona Wildcats (14-8, 4-5) didn't appear to wake up for the 10am start. When the 'Cats shook out their cobwebs, they overpowered the Cougars for their third consecutive win, 66-56.
Coach Tony Bennett watched calmly, strolling the sidelines as everything was going the Cougs way in the first half.
For the first 20 minutes, the game was dominated by Cougar defense. No surprise there. That's the strength of WSU, especially when they get into their Bennett Ball zone.
Washington State earned a 28-23 lead by intermission. The main reason they were able to shut down the multi-faceted offense of Arizona was how Chase Budinger was taken out of the game.
Budinger went 1-for-8 for 2 points in the first half. The rest of his team was playing good basketball, with Jordan Hill leading the way scoring 8 points and grabbing 9 boards.
It's not unusual for Coach Bennett to make adjustments at half time that put his team in a position to finish strong.
Washington State is 9-1 this season when they lead at the half.
Six minutes into the second half, WSU was doing what they do best. Pace of the game was Bennett Ball tempo. Taylor Rochestie was breaking down the 'Cat zone, including his floater in the lane over Jordan Hill.
With a little over 14 minutes to play the Cougs led 37-30.
Coach Bennett should have known to expect the unexpected. After all, the was an important Pac-10 game for both teams who were trying to rise up in the standings.
Coach Russ Pennell opted to switch things up, taking a page out of Coach Bennett's playbook. He told his team to press the ball anywhere on the court. Risky coaching move for a team that has questionable depth on the bench.
Without risk there's rarely reward.
Over the next 10 minutes of play, Arizona took the game away from Washington State. They forced turnovers when WSU couldn't get the ball up court. They forced bad passes with their zone defense. They out-muscled the Cougs for every rebound and loose ball.
Over that same 10 minutes of play, Arizona outscored WSU 24-2 to take an insurmountable 56-41 lead.
How effective was the 'Cat defense?
Freshman Klay Thompson smoothly knocked down a trey from beyond the arc about four minutes into the second half. Next possession for the Cougs, senior Aron Baynes deftly tossed in a seven foot hook.
Next couple of possessions for WSU resulted in turnovers.
From there, senior Caleb Forrest broke the suffocating Arizona press with a fast break layup, plus a foul. He missed the foul shot, something that rarely happened to any Coug at the charity stripe this month.
Normally it's a good thing when Rochestie takes control of the offense. In a left-handed way, he did. No other WSU player could make a bucket until Forrest broke through with a 20 foot jumper near the 2:00 mark. To quote the lyrics of Carol King, by then "...it's too late baby, yeah, it's too late".
And that is some pretty effective defense.
In a sense, both teams accomplished what is the goal of any Pac-10 team.
Defend your house. Arizona knocked off both No. 23 Washington and pesky Washington State.
At least split games on road trips. The Cougs defeated No. 14 ASU before falling to the 'Cats.
After holding Budinger to just two points in the first half, he finished with a team high 19 complimented by 11 boards. It was his inspired play that proved to be the difference in the game. His front court mate, Jordan Hill, put in a solid blue collar performance scoring 16 points and pulling down 16 rebounds.
Washington State was led by Rochestie's game high 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting. Baynes finished with just 12 points even though he made his first five shots. Once again, WSU lost focus because of zone defense and failed to get the ball inside to Baynes.
The young guns of Washington State were overwhelmed by the pressure put on by Arizona and the passionate fans filling McKale Center. They were given a lesson in Pac-10 basketball on the road.
Coach Bennett and his staff will look over the game film and review the lesson with Cougar players.
This loss snatched from the jaws of victory will serve as a lesson learned.