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Originally published Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 11:08 PM

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Bud Withers

Cougars hang tough, make themselves relevant again

The Cougars survived a dreadful first half, and against every shred of sane thinking, came into Hec Ed and dropped the Huskies, 80-69.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

In the giddiness outside Washington State's locker room Sunday night, WSU's coach, Ken Bone, dropped the line of the evening.

He was asked if the Cougars' early man-to-man defense against the Huskies came as a result of knowing the UW must have worked endlessly trying to beat the zone WSU had erected successfully in its victory four weeks ago in Pullman.

"Well, we came out in man, but also in zone after made baskets," Bone said laconically. "You just didn't see it because we weren't making any baskets."

Rim shot, please.

The Cougars, and maybe 15 or 20 TV viewers up and down the West Coast, survived a dreadful first half, and against every shred of sane thinking, came into Hec Ed and dropped the Huskies, 80-69. Now Washington has to hope the NCAA selection committee isn't thinking along the same lines.

The game made it apparent the Huskies have work to do, significant work, before they've punched a dance ticket for mid-March. And what about the Cougars, who jumped up to 18-10 and 8-8 in the league? Even at a mid-80s RPI entering this one, might they still somehow carve out a bid absent a championship in the Pac-10 tournament?

It was all so unlikely. The Cougars came in being questioned for their pratfalls against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State. They dropped 10 of their last 12 a year ago, and fans were quick to draw a comparison.

This week, said DeAngelo Casto, WSU players had a meeting and faced their demons after their disheartening loss to Arizona State, a team that had won a single Pac-10 game and was missing two key starters.

"We kind of slapped ourselves in the face when we lost to ASU," Casto said. "We have a lot of team meetings, but this was a huge one. We looked in each other's eyes and said, 'We're better than this.' "

The first half almost defies description. Midway through, Klay Thompson committed his fifth turnover of the night. But in this half, everything was forgiven. That's the way it is when, at one point, one team (the UW) was shooting 4 of 23 and the other was 4 for 16.

WSU and Washington were playing like the ball was covered in Canola oil. It was so ugly, even players' moms up and down the Coast were turning the game off.

Of course, it finally heated up after intermission — at least WSU did. Thompson (26 points) insinuated himself as the best player on the floor; point guard Reggie Moore twice drained the shot clock profitably, coaxing in a three and feeding Casto down the lane for a killer slam; and Casto was a horse in the middle with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

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The Cougars built the lead to 21, stunningly, and had enough moxie to withstand the noise and the Huskies when they got within six.

It was as complete as it was stunning. Suddenly, the Huskies are having as much trouble with WSU as they had during the era of the coaching Bennetts, losing a high-scoring affair in Pullman four weeks ago, then dropping a gut-punch grinder on their own floor.

"To compete in this building, you've got to be really locked in and focused," said Bone, who called it the best WSU win of the season. "I thought the week off helped, to refocus on what we set out to do."

After the first WSU win, there was odd talk among some UW players that they felt aggrieved by Washington State students rushing the court in Pullman, with the sentiment that payback would be coming.

"You know, this is a rivalry," said Casto. "When you get beat, that's what the home team does."

Moore, asked how his team had taken those UW comments, said, "We didn't take it to heart at all. If they want to get mad that our fans rush the court, that's fine. We just come out to win basketball games."

When it was done, the scene was a bit surreal. The place where Washington dominates so ruthlessly was emptying minutes before the final horn. Right then, it felt a little like a consolation game in some tournament.

"It felt good seeing them guys leave the gym two minutes early," Thompson told Fox TV.

In recent weeks, in their perplexing losses, it seemed the Cougars had left the building early. In the unlikely venue of their most heated rival, they made themselves relevant again.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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