Ninth-seeded Washington State is eliminated on the first day of the Pac-12 men’s basketball conference tournament for the fifth straight year. California, seeded eighth in the tournament, will next face top-seeded Arizona on Thursday.
LAS VEGAS – Sitting next to Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson on the postgame podium, Ernie Kent pointed toward the budding sophomore stars on his left as proof that the Washington State men’s basketball team has improved during a transitional season under the first-year coach.
“When I took over this program 11 months ago, I saw a group of young men that lacked a lot of confidence,” Kent said. “The record may not reflect it, but they had a lot of victories this year, in my opinion, just in terms of how much growth took place within our program.”
To be sure, the Cougars made strides under Kent. They had a four-game improvement in the conference win column, upset Oregon and Washington and re-ignited a dormant offense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring last season.
Pac-12 men’s tournament
In Las Vegas
Thursday: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 8 California, noon, Pac-12 Networks; No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 12 USC, 2:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks; No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 10 Colorado, 6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks; No. 3 Utah vs. Stanford/UW, 8:30 p.m., ESPN.
Friday: Semifinal, 6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks; Semifinal, 8:30 p.m., ESPN.
Saturday: Championship game, 8 p.m., ESPN.
Despite the gains, Washington State was sent packing after its first Pac-12 tournament game for the sixth straight season.
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This time the ninth-seeded Cougars suffered a crushing 84-59 defeat to No. 8 California in Wednesday’s conference opener at the MGM Grand Arena.
“When it’s all said and done, there’s one champion at the end of the year,” Kent said. “And everybody else feels like us because your season ends. It’s an abrupt end to everything.”
For WSU, the ending came early.
Iroegbu drained a jumper that gave Washington State an 18-17 lead with 7:15 remaining in the first half when things fell apart for the Cougars.
They were outscored 20-8 the rest of the way and trailed 37-26 at halftime.
After the break, Iroegbu sank a couple of free throws to cut the Cougars’ deficit to nine points (39-30) at the 18:45 mark, but they didn’t get any closer.
California needed 1:55 to stretch its lead to 15 (45-30) and had a 20-point advantage (58-38) with 10:43 remaining.
Washington State had no answer for forward David Kravish, who finished with a career-high 25 points on 10-for-17 shooting after missing his first six shots. Jordan Matthews added 19 points and Tyrone Wallace 12 for California, which shot 58.5 percent from the field and held WSU to its second-lowest scoring output since the start of Pac-12 play.
The Golden Bears (18-14) meet No. 1 seed Arizona (28-3) at 12:10 p.m. on Thursday in the quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, Washington State concluded its first year with Kent at 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the conference. Last season, the Cougars finished 10-21 overall and 3-15 in the Pac-12 for an 11th-place finish.
WSU’s future looks reasonably promising with Iroegbu, who led the Cougars with 17 points, and Hawkinson, who tallied 14 points and 11 rebounds.
A year ago, Hawkinson didn’t play in a 74-63 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament opener and Iroegbu registered eight scoreless minutes.
“I need to improve defensively out on the perimeter guarding quicker players … and also getting stronger and doing better and getting better position in the post,” said Hawkinson, who claimed the Pac-12 most improved player award. “I felt Kravish exposed our big guys tonight.”
Washington State will also rely on junior forward Junior Longrus and 6-foot-10 center Valentine Izundu, who redshirted this season.
Barring an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational, the Cougars said goodbye to a three-man senior class that included guards DaVonte Lacy and Dexter Kernich-Drew and center Jordan Railey.
Lacy, a first-team All-Pac-12 standout who ranks fifth on WSU’s all-time scoring list with 1,548 points, ended his four-year career on the bench with his head buried in his jersey to hide tears that flowed freely.
“I gave everything I could to this program, and that was kind of the realization that it was over,” said the former Curtis High star, who ranks first all-time among the Cougars with 242 three-pointers. “There’s nothing more I can do for this program. … That was just overwhelming emotion.”
In their final Pac-12 games, Lacy tallied nine points, Railey had 12 and Kernich-Drew four.
“When these guys win the Pac-12 tournament and get to the NCAA tournament – and that’s going to be sooner than later – I’m going to feel good because I think me, Jordan and Drew helped lay the foundation for that success,” Lacy said. “I just wish I had another year to help get them there.”