Cougars shake off jitters, triumph over Oral Roberts, 70-54
The Cougars, 26-7 and tying the 1941 team for the most wins in school history, advance to play Vanderbilt in the second round in Sacramento on Saturday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It took the Washington State Cougars a little while to figure out this whole NCAA tournament thing.
Apparently not knowing the pre-game protocol, several of the Cougars needed to be told to head to midcourt to shake hands with their opponents from Oral Roberts before tipoff.
The Cougars, who hadn't been in the tournament for 13 years, continued to look uncertain of their surroundings for the first 19 minutes and 55 seconds of today's first-round game at Arco Arena.
But a four-point swing in the final five seconds of the first half — capped by a steal and dunk by Kyle Weaver — woke the Cougars up and propelled them to a 70-54 win over Oral Roberts.
"That really got us fired up coming in at halftime to come out and play in the second half," said Weaver.
In fact, the Cougars scored 13 straight points spanning the last five seconds of the first half and the first 2:34 of the second to turn a six-point deficit into a seven-point lead and take command for good.
The Cougars, 26-7, tied the 1941 team for the most wins in school history and advance to play Vanderbilt in the second round Saturday.
WSU trailed 28-26 at halftime, looking for much of the first 20 minutes like a team threatening to live up to expectations of many national experts who were tabbing No. 14-seeded Oral Roberts to pull the upset on the No. 3 Cougars.
"Maybe just guys' emotions, guys were a little nervous, our first time being here," Weaver said. "All those things went into it."
But the Cougars seemed to finally get a grip on the game after scoring four points in the final five seconds of the first half.
With the Cougars trailing 28-22, guard Taylor Rochestie worked the shot clock and hit a running banker.
Weaver, one of WSU's two-All-Pac-10 players, stole the inbounds pass from ORU's Yemi Ogunoye and dunked it as the buzzer sounded, sending the Cougars racing into the locker room with the raucous backing of their fans.
"I looked up real fast and figured they would try to hurry up and get one on the other end, so I hung around a little bit and read the guys' eyes and snuck in there," Weaver said.
Said Ogunoye: "I tried to get it in as fast as I could and he came in behind Ken [Tutt] and got the ball. That really swung the momentum of the game. We were still up two but it seemed like they had all the momentum."
The Cougars then hit their first four shots of the second half, scoring nine points in a row to open the half, and took a 35-28 lead. The Cougars made 16 of 27 shots in the second half.
The run included a three-pointer by Low, WSU's other All-Pac-10 player, and a dunk by Ivory Clark off a dish from Low, the latter forcing Oral Roberts to call time out.
Clark, who has voiced frustration in recent days over his declining playing time, led the Cougars with 19 points. He also had five blocks and six rebounds.
"I just wanted to be a spark off the bench and contribute any way that I could," said Clark.
After Oral Roberts broke the drought, the Cougars scored seven more, including another three-pointer by Low, to take a 42-30 lead.
Oral Roberts cut the lead to 53-47 and had the ball with just more than eight minutes left.
But Adam Liberty missed on an ill-advised drive through the middle of the Cougars defense and Weaver responded with his own drive and dunk on the other end to put WSU ahead 55-47 with 7:40 remaining.
Rochestie then hit a three-pointer with about six minutes left and the Cougars were again comfortably ahead.
Any remaining doubt was extinguished a minute later when Clark swatted a shot by Caleb Green, Oral Roberts' leading scorer, leading to a Rochestie lay-in. Green, who fell to the ground, got up visibly frustrated, then after having another shot blocked on the next possession, threw an elbow at Weaver.
Clark punctuated the victory with a tip-in at 2:05 left to put the Cougars ahead 67-52, throwing up his arms in triumph as the ball fell through the hoop.
The game ended with Clark cradling the ball, then tossing it to the air to celebrate WSU's first NCAA tournament win since beating Weber State in the first round in 1983.
It was WSU's first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994, a first-round loss to Boston College in Washington D.C.
Tutt led Oral Roberts with 19 points. Green tallied 13 but shot just 4 of 16 as the Cougars often double-teamed him early. For most of the second half, WSU's Robbie Cowgill simply kept Green from getting too close to the hoop with Clark coming from the weak side to swat away a few of his shots.
"They really keyed on me," Green said. "They basically eliminated me as a factor offensively."
Oral Roberts, which won both the Mid-Continent Conference regular season and postseason tournament titles, finishes the season at 23-11.
The Cougars made just 11 of 30 shots in the first half, missing nine straight at one point, with the offense stagnating as both Weaver and Low were limited due to early foul trouble. Weaver picked up his second foul with 15:57 left.
But ORU couldn't take much advantage, making just 11of 31 shots in the first half.
ORU kept a slight lead through much of the half by hitting 4 of 13 three-pointers, compared to WSU's 0-for-3 effort, and outrebounding the Cougars, 23-18.
Oral Roberts' largest first-half lead was 26-18 after a three-pointer by Moses Ehambe with 1:56 left.
That capped an 11-2 run by the Golden Eagles.
But Weaver's steal and dunk sparked an 8-2 WSU run to end the first half that had the Cougars feeling in control despite having trailed the last 8:46 of the first half.
"Obviously we got off to a slow start," said WSU coach Tony Bennett. "But I thought when we got a handle on not giving them as many second shots and offensive rebounds we felt pretty good about it. That flurry at the end of the first half helped."
Said Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton: "They showed in the second half why they are one of the top 10, 15 teams in America."
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.