Washington State came within three minutes of making a statement to the Pac-10 and NCAA tournament committee. Instead, the young guns showed their inexperience, falling to the LSU Tigers 64-52 in Baton Rouge.
This game was a match-up that wouldn't attract a large viewing audience for ESPN. Both teams play strong defense and are comfortable playing deliberate offense.
However, there's deliberate, and then there's the style of play Coach Tony Bennett likes. By dictating tempo, "Bennett Ball" limits the number of possessions an opponent gets in a game.
For the first 37 minutes of this game, it was all about "Bennett Ball."
Despite senior Aron Baynes picking up his second foul early in the first half, banishing him to the bench, WSU trailed by just two at the half, 25-23.
The Cougars out-rebounded the top rebounding team in the nation over the first twenty minutes, 20-18.
That was surprising, but the real surprise was the eight offensive rebounds WSU pulled down in the first half, because typically they only design one player to crash the boards.
WSU needed every one of those offensive rebounds to stay with LSU, as the Cougars only managed one assist.
There were numerous lead changes in the first half before LSU tied the game at 15-15.
This was destined to be a game where coaching made the difference.
Coach Trent Johnson is in his first year at LSU, and is still trying to get this team to buy into his system.
After seeing how this game played out, his Tigers should be believers.
Last year, Coach Johnson was Coach of the Year in the Pac-10, leading Stanford to a second-place finish. Coming into this game, he was more than familiar with what it takes to prepare a team to face Washington State. Coach Johnson's teams won the last three match-ups against Coach Bennett.
The second half was quite different from the opening half for both teams.
WSU came out running their offense to perfection, making just about every shot that was called for. They maintained a slow tempo of play while running off a nice 9-0 stretch that put them up 41-35 with about 12 minutes of regulation play left.
When the Cougars extended their lead to 7 at 47-40, it looked as though they would return home with a win.
The coaching came into play at that point.
Coach Johnson freed his players up to take the outside shots "Bennett Ball" was offering them and that turned out to be the key to the game.
By showing confidence in his players' shooting abilities, Johnson gave them the push to play with tremendous intensity and confidence at both ends of the court.
Cougar momentum and confidence left the building when Tiger players started swishing outside shots. LSU put together a very nice 11-2 run of their own, and were positioned to grind out the final precious possessions.
Coach Bennett implored his team to feed the big guy in the middle, Aron Baynes, as LSU didn't have anyone who could defend him one-on-one.
Coach Johnson answered that coaching maneuver with one of his own.
LSU double-teamed Baynes every time he touched the ball, and forced any other WSU player to make a shot.
That's also where inexperience reared its ugly head for the Cougars.
With only one timeout left for WSU at the 2:38 mark, Coach Bennett was forced to let his players execute.
Not only did WSU have trouble getting the ball into Baynes the rest of the game, LSU forced a handful of turnovers in the process. The Tigers outscored the Cougars 11-2—their second such run—over the final four minutes of play.
WSU, flat out, didn't execute.
Not only did the game mark the fourth consecutive time a Coach Johnson team defeated a Coach Bennett team, they also looked impressive in the process. As the Tigers roll into SEC play, it's clear they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Though the Cougars fell to 8-4 on the season, they are certainly aren't limping into Pac-10 play. All four of their losses are to teams appearing to be bound for NCAA tournament play in March.
The young guns of Wazzou have gained valuable experience.
When Baynes went to the bench early in the first half, DeAngelo Casto played valuable minutes. He never got off the pine in the second half though. The same should be pointed out for Marcus Capers.
That's probably an indication of what to expect in terms of Coach Bennett's rotation early in the Pac-10.
For the record, freshman Klay Thompson played solid once again, scoring 12 points. He followed senior Taylor Rochestie who led the Cougs with 14, but that was on 5-15 shooting. Klay earned his 12 with just 11 shots. That's the level of efficiency you'd expect from a seasoned player. Clearly their performance doesn't follow the traditional pattern of play.
The senior who played like one was Caleb Forrest. Forrest's gangly play kept the Cougars in the game in the first half, and was solid over the final 20 minutes. He contributed 10 points of offense, blocked a shot, and seemed to be pulling down rebounds everywhere.
Coach Bennett now has a week to prepare his team for the conference opener next Saturday against Washington. Not only does he have a pretty good idea about the team strengths and weaknesses, players are beginning to know what they can do during a game.
Washington State needs some tweaking. Coach Bennett and his staff will get that done.
The Cougars will be ready for conference play.
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