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Originally published March 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2007 at 4:14 PM

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Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley | Cougars: A lot to remember, a lot to think about

Almost every player, every coach says they remember the losses more than the wins. The losses wake them up in the middle of the night. They nag at them...

Seattle Times staff columnist

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Almost every player, every coach says they remember the losses more than the wins. The losses wake them up in the middle of the night. They nag at them for as long as they stay in the game.

The missed free throws rain on the most perfect summer days. The turnovers haunt their picnics, their reunions, haunt every succeeding win.

The pain of games like Washington State's double-overtime 78-74 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon never completely disappears. It lingers, part eternal motivator and part antagonist.

An unpredictably terrific Cougars season came to a punishing end in this second round of the NCAA tournament. Washington State, which led 51-43 with 11:50 to play, made only seven field goals and scored only 23 points in the game's final 22 minutes.

"All you can think about are the little things that you did in the game that could have swayed it here and there," said junior center Robbie Cowgill. "A free throw missed here, a layup, a defensive stop, getting a rebound. But it's part of the deal. It's part of the game.

"You're going to have tough losses. Right now it feels like the most memorable [game] I've ever had. But I hope it doesn't take away from what we did this year."

The Cougars, who were picked to finish last by Pac-10 writers, won 26 games. They finished second in the conference, beat Washington three times, got a No. 3 seed and won a first-round tournament game against Oral Roberts.

But when they had a chance to advance to the Sweet 16, they couldn't find their offensive rhythm. They made careless turnovers and they let Vanderbilt sharpshooters Derrick Byars and Shan Foster ignite. This was a game that got away.

And maybe because they did so much this year, because they warmed up the Palouse winter and woke up the slumberous Beasley Coliseum fans, this loss was especially painful and the end of the season felt dramatically sudden.

"It's kind of a shock," Cowgill said. "You think back to the summers, when we're working out together and thinking about the year upcoming and it seems so far away. The tournament is kind of what you're hanging your hat on in the workouts. Then it's here, and all of a sudden it's gone. There's a lot of emotions. You put so much into it. And now this is kind of like, 'whoa.' "

Compounding the pain of this loss is the uncertainty of first-year coach Tony Bennett's future at Washington State. In one season, he put his mark on basketball in Washington. He showed that patient, disciplined basketball can fill up arenas and light up nights.

But Michigan coach Tommy Amaker was fired Saturday, meaning both the Michigan and Minnesota jobs are open to tempt the Midwest-raised Bennett.

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The temptation of the Big Ten Conference and the Big Ten salaries should be alluring to Bennett, who earns a conference-low $350,000 in base pay. By comparison, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar will earn about $1 million next season.

"I have faith in him [Bennett]," said junior guard Derrick Low, who played a remarkable 48 minutes, scoring 21 points, including the three that sent the game into a second overtime. "He's the guy who brought in the core group of players. We were loyal to him in committing and keeping true and turning this program around.

"I think he'll be loyal to us and Washington State by coming back."

But loyalty, even for a loyalist like Bennett, will come with a price. He will demand and he deserves a huge raise from a financially challenged university.

Athletic director Jim Sterk said he will talk about the future when Bennett "feels the time is right." But when asked if he thought Bennett would be back Stern said, "Yeah, I do," before hustling out of ARCO Arena.

Bennett was predictably non-committal.

"I like this place," he said. "They've been good to me." But Bennett said he needed some time. "I want to get my bearings."

If he stays, a loss in a game this good can be part of the foundation for a long Cougars run. It can be remembered as a coming-of-age game.

If he leaves, this season and this game could feel more like a mirage.

"I'd like to think that this game is just kind of like lighting the match and starting the flames here," Low said. "Like this is the beginning of something."

This difficult loss can be the start of something special, or the end of a short, comet-like era. Tony Bennett can be remembered as the coach who turned around Washington State basketball, or the coach who turned his back on it.

Loyalty has a price. Let the bidding begin.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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