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Friday, March 9, 2007 - Page updated at 02:03 AM

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Steve Kelley

Cougars' march goes on in Pac-10 tourney

Seattle Times staff columnist

LOS ANGELES — With his team up by only four in the final minutes, guard Taylor Rochestie, just another basketball face four months ago before Washington State became a somebody, drove hard into the teeth of the Washington defense looking for a foul.

He got the contact, but not the whistle, but with 39.3 seconds left he shrugged off the bump and converted the hard-nosed floater in the lane that assured another win over Washington for Washington State on Thursday night.

This time it was 74-64.

And for the third time this season, WSU's guards were better than Washington's guards. Much, much better.

Rochestie, an unassuming kid with a cherubic face and a larcenous heart, scored 20 points. Derrick Low had 15, 12 in the first half when the Cougars' offensive was struggling. And smooth Kyle Weaver finished with 13.

Faster than you can say, "Who's your daddy?" the balance of power has swung in this state. Washington State has won five in a row against Washington.

Washington State has 25 wins. Washington has 19.

Washington State will play in tonight's Pac-10 Conference men's basketball tournament semifinal against USC. Washington has returned home.

Washington State is going to the NCAA tournament. Washington is going to the NIT.

For the time being, this state has a basketball rivalry that is better than its football rivalry. There is life after the Apple Cup. The Cougars are good. Made for March good.

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In the final minutes of another wonderful ballgame on a great day for the sport, they kept their poise, while UW played nervously. In the final minutes, the Cougars guards were the difference.

In this third meeting of the season, WSU was playing with the confidence that comes from winning 24 games. Washington was playing with a noisy desperation 12 losses create. Washington State was playing for NCAA tournament seeding. Washington was playing for its life.

For 40 minutes these two teams went after each other in a game that deserved to be played earlier, so the rest of the country could have appreciated what we were able to enjoy.

All season the Cougars have talked about humility. They've won without a lot of chest thumping and trash talking. They've shared the ball, shared the spotlight, shared the success.

It's a pleasure to watch them.

They play defense with such a frenzy it seems as if the man with the ball always is double-teamed. The Cougars defenders seem faster than the ball. They never let Spencer Hawes breathe.

Every time Hawes put the ball on the floor they attacked him. In foul trouble most of the night, Hawes finished with only six points in 22 minutes.

Washington played well. Washington State played better. And the entire day felt like Christmas for hoops junkies.

What were they thinking all those years when the conference's coaches and administrators fought so hard against a tournament?

While the rest of the country basked in these four-day basketball bacchanals, the Pac-10 always wound down its season with games in early March that lacked the drama and attention of so many of the nation's other games.

It took the Pac-10 a long time to understand the value of these games. Finally, in 2002, the conference got hip again.

It restarted the moribund tournament, put it in the glittery Staples Center and created a celebration of the sport on the West Coast that finally could compete with the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East for the nation's early March attention.

The conference tournament is a baller's convention. Everybody shows up and shows off everything they've learned (or in the cases of Oregon State and Arizona, what they haven't learned) since practice started in November.

Conference basketball tournaments are events unique in sports. They give us days like this that last from noon almost to midnight and still we're disappointed when the gym gets quiet and the lights are turned off.

In this one day of wall-to-wall ball, we got two overtime games. We got a run-and-gun symposium from Oregon. And we got another game to heat up Washington's in-state rivalry.

After missing out for so many years, we got the same taste of early March that fans in New York and North Carolina have been getting for decades.

It was warm outside, but there was no better place to be in Los Angeles on Thursday than inside the Staples Center. That's where Washington State again showed how beautiful the game can be when it's played the right way.

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

More columns at seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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