When Ernie Kent took over the Washington State basketball program last April, he found a team that was fundamentally beaten down, devoid of confidence, unable to summon up the limited resources it possessed.
Funny, but that didn’t look a team lacking confidence Saturday at Alaska Airlines Arena. It dictated pace, committed only 10 turnovers, made its final 11 free throws in the last 4:01 and stunned 13-point favorite Washington, 80-77.
When it was done, a couple of teammates rushed senior guard DaVonte Lacy, who had 25 points, exchanged happy bumps with him, and for the second time in six days, the Cougars had upended a team harboring visions of the NCAA tournament.
“At the end of the day, it’s the reason you come back to coaching,” said an obviously pleased Kent, who had a four-year break from coaching after getting fired at Oregon, his alma mater. “For the chess match, for getting young people to believe in themselves and believe in you … for these great battles over here.
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“We executed a great game plan today.”
Indeed, the Cougars developed, and carried out, a crafty plan. With a deficit inside against people like Robert Upshaw (the nation’s leading shot-blocker) and Shawn Kemp Jr., WSU turned it into a guard’s game. The Cougars pushed the pace, shot threes freely (9 of 24) and survived 30 points from Husky point guard Nigel Williams-Goss.
Lacy had 25 points, but just as big a pest for the Huskies was sophomore guard Ike Iroegbu, who jammed his foot to the accelerator and produced 13 points, five assists and four rebounds.
“He set a ferocious pace,” Kent said. “He was the difference in the game, because he got us running. I call him a poor-, poor-man’s version of Russell Westbrook. We tried to take the ‘bigs’ out with the speed of the game.”
Contributions came from all over for the Cougars, including 11 points and three assists from forward Brett Boese, who hit double figures for only the second time this season.
“He’s a really good player,” Kent said. “He gives you everything in the tank.”
Like most of the rest of the day, the play of the game unfolded perfectly for WSU. The Cougars were holding a 71-70 lead with possession under their basket and 46 seconds remaining. Knowing the Huskies’ penchant for switching screens, WSU plotted during a timeout to turn that against them.
Josh Hawkinson, the 6-foot-10 sophomore from Shorewood High, went to screen on the perimeter and then “slipped” it, feigning a hard pick and darting for the basket. Iroegbu hit him in stride, and Mike Anderson fouled him, resulting in a three-point play that kept the Huskies at bay.
“I did a quick slip to the basket and my defender was trailing me,” said Hawkinson.
“They helped too much on DaVonte,” said Iroegbu.
Maybe with good reason. After a quiet, five-point first half, Lacy, the Curtis High product, had 20 of his points after the break, including six straight free throws in the last 36 seconds for his first win at UW.
“I told myself, ‘If we’re going to win or lose, it’s going to be on my shoulders,’ ’’ said Lacy. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t mean a little extra.”
So here are the Cougars, 8-7 overall and 2-1 in the conference and not yet having played a Pac-12 home game.
Kent, recalling his appointment nine months ago, ran through the litany of “can’ts” he was told about the Cougars: can’t shoot, can’t defend, can’t hit free throws.
“We put our arms around ’em, let ’em empty their backpacks of all that negative stuff,” he said. “I’m just happy for them we’re coming of age right now.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org