2011 NIT Basketball: Washington State Cougars Claw Their Way to New York City

Kip ArneyCorrespondent IMarch 24, 2011

Despite building a 14-point lead before leading at halftime by seven, the Washington State Cougars did everything they could to throw away tonight's game against the Northwestern Wildcats in a gut-wrenching 69-66 overtime victory.

The Cougars received good news just hours before tip-off—DeAngelo Casto had been reinstated for the game after Athletic Director Bill Moos, lifted the suspension. Casto was caught in his apartment with the stench of marijuana floating in the air.

Casto took advantage of his second chance and jumped out of the gates fast and hard, alongside the rest of the Cougars. Casto scored the the team's first four points, including a thunderous two-hand slam.  He also recorded a block and a steal all within the first two minutes of the game. This began an opening stretch where the Cougars jumped out to a 10-3 lead.

Casto continued his good night, finishing with 11 points and eight rebounds along with two steals and two blocks.

Helping on the interior, sophomore Brock Motum showed soft touch around the rim as he shot five of six from the field in the first half.  He finished the night with 13 points and six rebounds in a career high 30 minutes of action.

The game got off to a good start for the Cougars, mainly because Northwestern struggled to find their touch from long range.

Northwestern lives and dies by the three, so it was only fitting that it was the cause of their demise early on.  Their four field goals were all threes, and they didn't hit a two-point field goal until the 7:49 mark in the first half—followed up by another three.

The Wildcats, one of the top three-point shooting teams in both attempts and makes, shot just 10-of-38 on the game—including 0-8 in an overtime period that only saw them score two points.

After a sloppy first half, Northwestern rallied back.  They carried a 10-0 run through halftime to tie the game up at 38—almost the entire second half remained to be played.

From that point on, the 5,900 in attendance saw six ties and eight lead changes.

The Cougars, not this team in particular, are notorious for coughing up leads and losing games they shouldn't. The term "Cougin' It" has become well-known throughout the entire state of Washington, and it would've been the word of the day on Thursday had the Cougars dropped this one.

I personally believe the Cougars got away with two should've-been-turnovers in the last minute of the game.

One was by Klay Thompson. It was extremely obvious he palmed the ball on a high dribble, right in front of the Northwestern bench. This caused them to lose their minds on the sideline before Thompson called a timeout.

The other was by Reggie Moore when he lost control of his dribble, and dove alongside a Northwestern player for the ball before it rolled out of bounds. To me, it looked like Northwestern should've gotten the ball.

But both of those plays were minuscule compared to the final four seconds of the game.  Officials huddled around the monitor, trying desperately to get a clear vision of what happened—I've seen multiple replays of this play and still can't figure out if the right call was made.

Reggie Moore dribbled the length of the court after Northwestern's John Shurna tied the game at 64 with a lay-in. However, instead of taking the shot himself, with the clock winding down, Moore took a risk.  He made a "time-consuming" pass to a wide open Abe Lodwick underneath the basket, who basically got tackled on a shot-attempt as the buzzer went off.

The question became, what came first? The buzzer or the whistle?

After much deliberation, the officials decided the foul came first with 0.2 seconds left on the clock.  Lodwick, a 69 percent free-throw shooter on the year, who had taken just 13 attempts all season, stepped to the line for two freebies that would essentially win the game.

But he missed them both.

In overtime, both teams struggled as far as offensive production.  With five offensive rebounds for the Wildcats in the extra period, they were able to maintain hope—until two three-pointers by Alex Marcotullio in the final seconds fell short, and the Cougars walked away victorious.

Klay Thompson, who possibly may have played his last game in Pullman, struggled most of the night.  He finished with 17 points while only shooting 6-of-18 from the field and, for the first time all season, did not connect on a three-point field goal.

But I guess when a guy leads his team in points (17) rebounds (nine) and assists (four) in 43 minutes of action, it's hard to call that a struggle. For Klay Thompson though, we here in Pullman have been spoiled by his scoring outputs.

After the game was over, Thompson may have given the Cougar faithful hope that he'll return.  When he came out for a postgame interview on ESPN, the chant "One more year!" rang throughout Beasley Coliseum, and Thompson had a big grin on his face and held up one finger while facing his classmates.

The victory earned the Cougars' first NIT Final Four bid in the program's history. They will join Alabama, Colorado, and Wichita State at Madison Square Garden for the semi-finals on Tuesday night.

The Cougars will take on Wichita State, a No. 4 seed that knocked off College of Charleston earlier tonight. Before them, the Shockers took down No. 1 seed Virginia Tech, a team many believed should've been in the NCAA tournament.