Washington State’s basketball season has extended into postseason play. The Cougars are going to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) as a No. 7 seed in the San Diego region. They are matched up against the No. 2 seed St. Mary’s out of the West Coast Conference.
WSU will travel to Northern California for the opening round game on the home court of St. Mary’s. The game will be televised Tuesday, March 17 at 8pm PST on ESPN2.
This will be the first time the two schools have met on the hardwood.
Coach Tony Bennett's team came on strong at the end of the season, playing their way into an NIT invitation. Along with their improved play came more and more confidence for a roster loaded with talented freshmen.
The NIT postseason tournament for WSU marks the third consecutive year Coach Bennett has led his team beyond the regular season. This will be the fourth time in school history that Washington State has appeared in the NIT, the last being back-to-back in 1995-96. The Cougs made it to the quarterfinals in ’95, their best showing.
St. Mary’s finished second in the WCC this season behind nationally ranked Gonzaga with a conference record of 10-4. The Gaels are 26-6 on the season, a record they felt should have earned them one of the 34 at-large bids to The Big Dance.
In his Sunday evening conference call, Coach Bennett commented on St. Mary’s being snubbed by the NCAA:
“They've been kind of jilted I guess by the NCAA so they’ll want to prove, as Ohio State did last year, this is what happens when you don’t take a team into the tournament that’s deserving. They (Ohio State) won that thing. No question St. Mary’s will be that way."
How good are the Gaels?
Diamon Simpson averages a double-double for St. Marys, scoring 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. For the second consecutive year, Simpson was named Defensive Player of the Year in the WCC. Add to his resume school records in rebounding, blocked shots, and steals.
Omar Samhan is second on the team in scoring and rebounding with averages of 14.2 and 9.4. He’s leading the Gaels with 64 blocked shots this season.
Patrick Mills leads St. Marys in scoring. averaging 17.8 points, and is just a sophomore. Mills missed nine games due to a broken hand and is just playing his way back into top form. The Gaels are nearly unstoppable with Mills in the lineup, posting an impressive record of 20-2. He led them to an 18-1 start that included a 15-game winning streak before injuring his hand.
Truly an international team, the Gaels have five Australians on their roster. Fellow countryman Aron Baynes of WSU commented, “Oh I’m going to play against all the boys (from home).”
It’s no wonder the young guns of Washington State are gaining confidence on a daily basis. Coach Bennett held a practice Sunday afternoon during the NCAA selection show and then had the team over to the house to watch invitations to the NIT go out. This WSU team is a good one and getting better, so no need to wonder if the NIT would come calling.
Once the word came down, Coach Bennett pointed out that his team playing their way into the NIT was “huge” for the program.
“For your young kids, you desperately want them to taste what it’s like and just to have the experience...I have a memory of when we came (here) and how hard it was. This is pretty special to do this three years in a row.”
“Going into postseason play, and this is a national tournament, it’s uncharted waters (for the freshmen) and our seniors have played in two of them. It’ll be important for them to understand that tournament basketball is a little bit different. And being a road game, that jacks it up even a little more. Hopefully they’ll (seniors) be a steadying, calming influence and play with great heart.”
A demanding conference schedule and tournament has prepared Washington State. They are a team on the rise and have no intentions to have this season come to an end anytime soon.