Washington State began their NCAA Tournament play in Denver with a predatory second half attack that sent Winthrop back to South Carolina. Yes, the Cougs played like a No. 4 seed, winning 71-40.
Looking at a 31 point margin for Coach Tony Bennett and the Cougars, you'd think the game was a blowout from beginning to end. Not the case my friends.
The first half was solid for both teams, ending in a 29-29 tie. For 20 minutes this game was intense. The biggest lead for either team was four points by WSU at 6-2. There were eight ties as the scoring went back and forth.
Kyle Weaver and Aron Baynes were awesome in the opening half. They were on their game. Baynes was scoring and hauling in rebounds with ease. Weaver was calmly going about showing his offensive skills.
Give credit to Winthop. The Eagles matched WSU in every phase of the game in the first half. To do that, they had to put out a Herculean effort. WSU was bigger and very comfortable playing physical. Translation: The Cougs banged hard in the paint and chased the Eagles on the perimeter.
Second half—All Washington State.
The Eagles didn't score their first bucket until the 13:18 mark. Frustrated with the way their shots were either being blocked or doinking off the rim, Taj McCullough got loose underneath the basket for a slam dunk.
After a smooth jumper off a pick by Low, Winthrop scored on their next possession as Michael Jenkins knocked down a nice mid-range jumper. That was it. The Eagles wouldn't score again for almost six minutes.
This was a great start for WSU. They played up to their potential, yet really didn't look much different than they ever do. Coach Bennett keeps everything in perspective for his players, reminding them to focus on both the opponent and the game plan.
Next up for the Cougs are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish dispatched George Mason in the game following the Winthrop-WSU opener. Final in that one was 68-50.
Notre Dame is going to be a tough matchup for Washington State. They are a very physical team that comes out of the highly touted Big East Conference. The Irish came into the tournament with a record of 23-7, adding a notch to their record with an opening round victory.
The question Coach Bennett will have to answer is "How will you slow down the Irish offense?" ND averages more than 80 points a game. No team in the Pac-10 puts up numbers like that. However, the Irish give up nearly 76 points a game. Again, no team in the Pac-10 gives up numbers like that. No, not even the lowly Beavers of Oregon State.
Look for the Cougs to give up a few offensive rebounds so they can get back on defense after any shot. They will work to keep the game a half court contest. Should the Cougs control the pace of the game, there will be more celebration in the locker room before moving on to the next round.
Make no mistake, the Irish are primed to run WSU off the court. That hasn't happened to the Cougs very often this season.
The Irish are about to run out of luck.